While heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, diseases of the brain – especially Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – are substantially increasing. These conditions are often associated with many of the same risk factors that cause heart disease, including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and tobacco use.
About 10% of adults 65 years and older have dementia, but it’s more common in women (12.9%) than men (7.3%).
How are heart disease and brain health connected?
Cognitive decline and dementia are often seen following stroke and cerebrovascular disease and indicate a decline in brain health.
Multiple studies have linked the risk for dementia and cardiovascular disease. Findings include:
- The risk for dementia associated with heart failure was nearly twofold.
- Coronary heart disease was associated with a 40% increased risk of poor cognitive outcomes, including dementia, cognitive impairment or cognitive decline.
- Atrial fibrillation was associated with greater cognitive decline and dementia over 20 years.
- Adults with an abnormal upper heart chamber may be at increased risk for dementia. The condition, atrial cardiopathy, in older adults is linked to dementia whether or not someone has experienced atrial fibrillation or a stroke.
Studies also show maintaining good vascular health is associated with healthy aging and retained cognitive function.
Atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries — is a cause of many vascular diseases, including dementia. Heart disease may also lead to neurodegenerative changes in the brain.
Why are women with heart disease at risk for dementia?
The risk for dementia is greater in women with heart disease than in men with heart disease. More than 44% of U.S. women have some form of cardiovascular disease, making it important for all women to care for their physical and brain health.
Plus, risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, increase the likelihood for dementia.
Research has shown that older female heart attack survivors were twice as likely to see declines in memory and cognitive ability.
Life stages unique to women can also impact their risk of dementia.
Women who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy are at risk for vascular dementia later in life.
Women younger than 40 who experience premature menopause have a 35% higher risk of dementia compared with women of menopausal age (50-51 years old). Women with early menopause, under age 45, are 30% more likely to experience presenile dementia before age 65. So it may be important for women who experience menopause early to be evaluated for cognitive decline.
Understanding the connection between heart disease and dementia is important for women of all ages. Taking charge of your health through healthy lifestyle changes is good for your body and mind.
High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity also are linked to greater cognitive decline.
Women with high blood pressure and diabetes have a higher risk of cognitive decline. It’s important to prevent and treat high blood pressure early in life to promote brain and cognitive health.
Excess weight is also a concern. More than 40% of U.S. women are obese. Older adults who are obese are almost 30% more likely to have cognitive impairment than adults who are normal weight or overweight.
Smoking is also linked to a higher risk — 30% to 40% higher — of dementia. Approximately 11% of U.S. women are current smokers.
Since an effective treatment for dementia is still not available, women who work to prevent or manage heart disease risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity also may help to preserve their brain health.