New research adds to growing evidence that dementia can be prevented or delayed with modifiable lifestyle factors.
Researchers followed up more than 300 older adults in Pittsburgh, USA, for 15 years and found that the stiffness or hardening of their arteries was a strong predictor of their dementia risk.
These major blood vessels deliver oxygen and nutrients to all body organs including the brain. Arterial stiffness occurs when the vessel walls become inflamed and thick with plaque, and the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the body.
An independent risk factor
Age, hypertension, and diabetes are all risk factors for heart disease. They also increase the stiffness of arteries and have been linked to higher dementia risk.
Previous research has linked stiffer arteries to lower memory and concentration with aging. This study found that arterial stiffness was also an independent predictor of dementia.
Researchers assessed arterial stiffness using pulse wave velocity (PWV) – a measure of how long it takes for blood to be pumped through the arteries. They also took MRI scans of participants’ brains to test for signs of subclinical brain disease.
People with high PWV – hence stiffer arteries – were 60 percent more likely to develop dementia over the 15-year follow-up than those with low PWV. And although arterial stiffness is associated with risk of brain disease, controlling for that did not alter the risk.
First author Chendi Cui said, “It’s very surprising that adjusting for subclinical brain disease markers didn’t reduce the association between arterial stiffness and dementia at all.”
That’s good news, she added, because evidence suggests it’s easier to prevent arteries from becoming stiff than it is to prevent subclinical brain disease.
Arterial stiffness and other heart disease risk factors can be reduced with lifestyle habits like healthy diet, regular mobility, good quality sleep and not smoking – important for healthy aging altogether.
Addressing these well into advanced age could still have a significant impact. The long-term study above found that people who exercised at an average age of 73 had lower arterial stiffness five years later.
Even people in aged care with dementia have shown surprising benefits from individually tailored exercises.
The health benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet are also well established – including its link with healthy cognitive aging and reduced dementia risk.
The traditional diet is high in nutritious plant foods – vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds and wholegrains – rich in extra virgin olive oil as the main culinary fat for cooking and salads, regular consumption of fish and moderate intake of fermented dairy products and red wine.
The diet is low in red and processed meats, confectionary and sugar.
It’s not only healthy; another bonus is that the recipes are yummy, cheap and simple to make, and can be made in bulk for leftovers or frozen for emergencies. What’s not to love?