Individuals with poor executive function – a set of thinking skills related to planning, problem-solving and reasoning – may be at greater risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

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Individuals with poor thinking skills may be at higher risk of stroke and heart attack, according to researchers.

Every year, around 735,000 people in the US have a heart attack and around 795,000 Americans have a stroke.

A heart attack occurs when the coronary artery that supplies the heart with blood becomes blocked, depriving the heart of oxygen, while stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked.

Key risk factors for heart attack and stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight and obesity and smoking. But this latest study – conducted by Dr. Benham Sabayan and colleagues from Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands – suggests cognitive function may influence a person’s risk for the conditions.

“These results show that heart and brain function are more closely related than appearances would suggest,” says Dr. Sabayan. “While these results might not have immediate clinical translation, they emphasize that assessment of cognitive function should be part of the evaluation of future cardiovascular risk.”

To reach their findings, the team analyzed data of 3,926 individuals with an average age of 75 who had no history of heart attack, stroke or dementia. However, participants had either a history of heart disease or three risk factors for the condition: diabetes, high blood pressure or tobacco use.

At the study baseline, the participants took part in four tests that assessed their executive function. Subjects were then placed in one of three groups depending on whether they received “low,” “medium” or “high” scores on the tests, and they were monitored for incidence of stroke or heart attack over the following 3 years.

During follow-up, 375 heart attacks and 155 strokes occurred – the equivalent to 31 heart attacks and 12 strokes per 1,000 person-years.

The researchers found that individuals with low scores on executive function tests were at 85% greater risk of heart attack and 51% greater risk of stroke than subjects with high executive function scores.

In detail, of the 1,309 subjects with low executive function scores, 176 had a heart attack over the 3-year follow-up period, compared with 93 out of 1,308 individuals with high scores. This equates to a rate of 44 heart attacks per 1,000 person-years for people with low executive function and 22 heart attacks per 1,000 person-years for those with high executive function.

Sixty-nine strokes occurred among subjects with low executive function, while 48 occurred among those with high executive function, according to the results.

Explaining the potential driver behind their findings, Dr. Sabayan says:

Performance on tests of thinking and memory are a measure of brain health. Lower scores on thinking tests indicate worse brain functioning.

Worse brain functioning – in particular, in executive function – could reflect disease of the brain vascular supply, which in turn would predict, as it did, a higher likelihood of stroke. And, since blood vessel disease in the brain is closely related to blood vessel disease in the heart, that’s why low test scores also predicted a greater risk of heart attacks.”

The researchers point out that although their findings were statistically significant, the relative risks for heart attack and stroke among people with low executive function were small.

Last week, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting an individual’s coffee drinking habits may influence cognitive function.

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the study found that people who increase their coffee consumption over time may be at greater risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), while those who reduce their coffee consumption may have lower risk of MCI.