A new advisory from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association outlines seven measures we can all take to keep our brain healthy as we age and stave off dementia.
With time, our arteries tend to get clogged with fat deposits and other toxins. This process bears the name of atherosclerosis, and it is a risk factor for conditions such as coronary heart disease, angina, and chronic kidney disease.
The new advisory - published in the journal Stroke - underscores the fact that many of the factors that raise the risk of atherosclerosis may also impair cognitive health in later life.
The chair of the advisory's writing group is Dr. Philip Gorelick, a vascular neurologist and professor of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in East Lansing, MI. He sums up the findings, saying:
"Research summarized in the advisory convincingly demonstrates that the same risk factors that cause atherosclerosis are also major contributors to late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. By following seven simple steps [...] not only can we prevent heart attacks and stroke, we may also be able to prevent cognitive impairment."
'Life's Simple 7' steps for brain health
To compile the advisory, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of 182 scientific studies. In their analysis, the authors looked for factors that could be "measured, monitored, and modified."
So, Dr. Gorelick and colleagues identified seven metrics that they believe can maintain brain health at optimal levels. Four of these are "ideal health behaviors" and three are "ideal health factors."
The recommended health behaviors are: not smoking, maintaining high levels of physical activity, following a healthful diet, and keeping a healthy weight. The health factors are: keeping blood pressure levels under 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg), cholesterol levels under 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), and fasting blood sugar levels under 100 mg/dL.
The seven metrics found in the new report correspond to the so-called Life's Simple 7 - a program developed by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) with the aim of promoting cardiovascular health in the wide population.
These seven steps are:
- Manage blood pressure
- Control cholesterol
- Keep blood sugar normal
- Get physically active
- Eat a healthy diet
- Lose extra weight
- Don't start smoking or quit
"Over time we have learned that the same risk factors for stroke that are referred to in Life's Simple 7 are also risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and possibly for some of the other neurodegenerative disorders," Dr. Gorelick says.
Maintaining blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar at optimum levels is important because abnormally high levels of these may lead to complications that can cause atherosclerosis and blood clots.
As Dr. Gorelick explains, in time, this may lead to cognitive impairment and vascular dementia.
"[The] arteries carrying blood to the brain may narrow or become damaged, which can lead to dementia. The good news is that managing risk factors - and managing them early on - can keep those arteries strong and make a world of difference for our long-term brain health."
Dr. Philip Gorelick
The advisory stresses the importance of early interventions, as atherosclerosis, they warn, can start as early as childhood.
These recommendations are particularly important, the authors note, given the predicted prevalence of dementia in the United States and across the world. Currently, over 7 million new cases of dementia are diagnosed every year, and by 2030, the authors warn, as many as 75 million people may develop the condition.