The study of British adults found those with poor heart health at age 50 were twice as likely than those with healthier hearts to develop dementia within the next 25 years.
“Cardiovascular risk factors are modifiable, making them strategically important prevention targets”
Academics behind the research, published in The BMJ, believe the findings support public health policies to improve cardiovascular health in middle age to promote later brain health.
As dementia can develop 15-20 years before any symptoms appear, the researchers said identifying factors that might prevent its onset were important.
Their study – Association of ideal cardiovascular health at age 50 with incidence of dementia: 25 year follow-up of Whitehall II cohort study – examined the association between “Life Simple 7” cardiovascular health scores at age 50 and the risk of developing dementia over the next 25 years.
The American Heart Association’s Life Simple 7 categorises cardiovascular health based on behavioural and biological metrics into poor, intermediate and optimal.
While the observational study was unable to establish cause, the researchers found is a link between poor cardiovascular health scores in middle age and the development of dementia in later life.
They discovered an incidence rate of dementia of 3.2 per 1,000 person years among the group with poor scores, 1.8 per 1,000 person years among those with intermediate scores and 1.3 per 1,000 person years in the group with optimal scores. Person years is a type of measurement that takes into account the number of people in the study and the amount of time each person spends in the study.
The report’s findings were based on cardiovascular data collected from 7,899 British men and women at age 50 from the Whitehall II study, which is looking at the impact of social, behavioural, and biological factors on long-term health. The participants were free of both cardiovascular disease and dementia at age 50.
Out of all the participants, 347 cases of dementia were recorded over an average follow-up period of 25 years. Dementia cases were identified using hospital and mental health service data and death registers.
Reflecting on the findings, the study authors said public health interventions to help people maintain healthy hearts in middle age should be considered as part of dementia prevention efforts.
They said: “Cardiovascular risk factors are modifiable, making them strategically important prevention targets. This study supports public health policies to improve cardiovascular health as early as age 50 to promote cognitive health.”
Researchers in a linked editorial added: “Although the Whitehall study cannot reflect the UK’s population, estimates obtained from this cohort reinforce the need for action to shift population risk profiles for cognitive decline and dementia across the life course.”