Almost six million Americans have dementia; and according to the Center for Disease Control, by 2060 that number will grow to more than 15 million people. There is no effective treatment for dementia, which means that preventing it and preventing its progression are the only tools we have to stop the tremendous growth of this disease. Everyone is urged to assess their risk of dementia and make the necessary lifestyle changes that will make one less likely to develop the disease. One way to do so is to take a look at your cardiovascular risk score. Research has demonstrated that the worse your cardiovascular risk score is, the more likely you are to have dementia and the faster your symptoms will progress.
What’s a Cardiovascular Risk Score?
A Cardiovascular Risk Score is essentially a person’s likelihood to develop a cardiovascular disease in the next ten years. Cardiovascular diseases aren’t just limited to heart attacks and stroke. There are a wide range of cardiovascular diseases including abnormal heart rhythms, carditis, and more. So, the risk score should attempt to assess an individual’s risk for all these conditions.
The research that connected cardiovascular risk scores to dementia risk used the Framingham General Cardiovascular Risk Score to assess study participants. The most important factor in this risk analysis is age, but other factors include blood pressure, cholesterol, gender, and whether you smoke. From a simple questionnaire this scoring system can assess if your risk for heart problems is low, medium, or high.
How Cardiovascular Risk Score Connects to Dementia
A recent study, published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, has found that having a higher cardiovascular risk score was associated with a faster decline in dementia. This was a very robust study. It followed 1,588 people (with a mean age of 79.5) who did not have dementia for 21 years to measure how they would progress through dementia if they developed it.
Researchers used tests for working memory, semantic memory, visuospatial ability, and perceptual speed, as well as MRIs, to track the progress of any participants that developed dementia. They found that those whose initial Cardiovascular Risk Score was highest lost their cognitive abilities fastest, especially their perceptual speed, working memory and episodic memory.
Perceptual speed is about your brain’s ability to identify and compare items quickly. It’s a foundational skill your brain uses all of the time. So is working memory, also known as short term memory. This is the ability to keep the memory that you need right now, at the top of your mind. Episodic memory is your brain’s ability to remember certain “episodes” from your life, from childhood memories to the pattern of street intersections around your house.
We know that all three of these brain skills are impacted as dementia progresses. However, medical researchers are interested in discovering if and how the degradation of these skills can be slowed in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Reducing cardiovascular risk may be one way of doing so.
These brain changes that the study participants experienced can be seen physically. Through MRI scans researchers found that those in the highest risk category also had more significant brain changes than those who had lower cardiovascular risk. These brain changes included a smaller hippocampus, less grey matter, and a smaller overall brain. These study participants also suffered from more vascular lesions in the brain.
While the researchers could not determine which risk factor was most impactful on dementia progress, it is clear that having higher cardiovascular risk was associated with a worse decline once dementia began.
How to Change Your Cardiovascular Risk Score
Some of the factors of your cardiovascular risk score are out of your control. Your gender and age cannot be changed. However, your blood pressure, cholesterol, risk for developing diabetes and smoking habits are all within your control. The sooner you start to manage these risk factors, the better your long-term health will be, not only as it relates to heart health, but also as it relates to brain health.
A healthy lifestyle, as represented in our NEURO program (Nutrition, Exercise, Unwind, Restore and Optimize) is critical to increasing your brain health. Of these activities, nutrition and exercise are two key foundations for changing your blood pressure and cholesterol and reducing your risk of developing diabetes. In regard to nutrition, we are proponents of a whole-food, plant-based diet (so much so that our entire family follows this lifestyle).
Even those who have already developed dementia can slow down the progression of their disease with a lifestyle interventions with the NEURO plan at its core. Whether you have dementia or are simply concerned about your risk, we recommend reaching out to your doctor to discuss preventative measures.