You know February is Heart Month, right? What are you doing to reduce your risk of heart and vascular disease? Are you eating a heart-healthy diet? How about exercise? Are you getting enough? Do you have healthy ways of reducing and managing stress? It turns out, the same things you’re doing for your heart are also good for your brain and may reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. Let’s look at the risks for heart and vascular disease and Alzheimer’s and see how they compare.
Age and Gender
The single greatest risk factor for both conditions is age. If you’re a man 45 years or older or a woman 55 years or older, your age represents a risk factor for heart disease. After menopause, women’s heart disease risk is the same as men’s (all other things being equal). When it comes to Alzheimer’s, age is the single greatest risk. About five percent of those aged of 65 to 74 are thought to have Alzheimer’s. For those 85 years and older, the rate is about 50 percent.
Another risk factor over which you have no control is heredity. An early heart attack among your siblings, parents or grandparents puts you at increased risk. “Early” is defined as age 55 for male relatives and by age 65 for female relatives. Most cases of Alzheimer’s occur in persons over 65. Obvious inheritance patterns are not usually seen for this type. Some families do show clusters of cases and there are certain genetic patterns that do increase the risk of developing the disease. Familial or early onset Alzheimer’s is rare (less that 10% of patients) and develops prior to age 65 and as early as 35. It has a known genetic pattern. Women may also be at increased risk. While age, gender and genetics are obviously outside your control, knowing you have them they may motivate you to work at controlling the things you can.
Lack of regular and sufficient exercise is itself a risk factor for heart and vascular disease. Aerobic exercise reduces heart disease risk by strengthening the heart muscle, lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels and helping to maintain a healthy weight. Limited research on the relationship between exercise and Alzheimer’s suggests it may reduce risk and slow the progression of the disease. A few studies show aerobic exercise improves cognitive function in some patients. Because exercise is already known to improve type II diabetes, circulation, cholesterol levels and to manage stress, it’s clearly an important part of lowering your risk for Alzheimer’s.
We’ve known for decades that saturated fats (from animal fats and tropical oils) and dietary cholesterol (especially when paired with saturated fats) contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. More recently, research shows high-glycemic carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are also unhealthful for circulation. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins that is beneficial for the heart and blood vessels is also recommended to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s. Other specific dietary items that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s include vitamin D, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, curcumin (found in the spice turmeric) and the Mediterranean diet in general and extra virgin olive oil in particular. Remember, research is usually conducted on whole foods. Supplements containing components for the food should not be assumed to have the same effect.
Stress is an emerging risk factor for the development of both cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia). “Emerging” means evidence is not yet as well established as other factors but is supported by a growing body of research. Healthy stress management techniques include exercise, relaxation training and meditation, including mindfulness.
Alcohol and Tobacco
Moderate consumption of alcohol (2 drinks a day for men; 1 for women) may be healthful for circulation. Excessive consumption increases your risk for both heart and vascular disease and dementia. Smoking is a risk factor for both diseases.
Cardiovascular Disease and Type II Diabetes
Persons with cardiovascular disease are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. So are those with type II diabetes. The same atherosclerotic plaque that clogs the arteries of the heart also reduces blood flow to the brain. Chronically high blood sugar and excess insulin associated with diabetes are thought to harm the brain and contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Whether cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer’s runs in your family of not, the things you can do and avoid doing to lower your risk of developing both will also help you live a generally healthy life. Eating well, exercising, managing stress and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol may add years to your life, while adding life to your years. As always, if I can help you with any of this, please contact me.
David Wheeler, MA, MS is Wellness & Health Recovery Coordinator at Premier Health & Fitness Center. He is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Exercise Physiologist. David provides fitness training and health coaching for those contending with health challenges and for healthy adults who want to stay that way. He can be reached at email@example.com or 850-431-4835.