Why a heart attack sets you up for dementia

People often say that the heart and the mind are two sides of the same coin when it comes to how we handle the challenges of life. Either we “lead with our heart” and act on our feelings, or “lead with our head” and think things through logically.

Of course, we now know that these two aspects of our personality are blended, and that we can use both to solve problems, make decisions and build relationships.

But what about the physical connection between heart and brain? Can the things that happen to our physical health as we age have an effect on our mental health?

After all, our brain is a physical organ … the master organ that controls the rest, but still a physical thing. And it can be damaged.

Recently, researchers have been looking at this connection, and they’re finding that caring for our heart can indeed protect our brain and keep us mentally sharp well into our older years.

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Dementia and Alzheimer’s: what’s the difference?

Before looking at the research, it’s important to understand that there are different types of dementia, and that all of them are distinct from Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease like Alzheimer’s. It is a group of symptoms that affects cognitive tasks like memory and reasoning. Dementia can be a part of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive decline in mental ability, often accompanied by changes in alertness and attention, as well as hallucinations. Lewy body dementia also can produce Parkinson’s-like physical symptoms like rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors.

Then, there’s vascular dementia, caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

It’s here that researchers have been finding the heart-head connection.

Heart attacks increase risk for dementia

Last year, Danish researchers shared the results of a long-term study that looked at dementia risk in a large population sample a year following a heart attack.

They compared 314,911 heart attack patients with 1,573,193 people who had not had a heart attack. During the 35-year follow-up, they found that having a heart attack increased the risk of vascular dementia by 35 percent.

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Women: beware of hypertension

Hypertension and heart attacks are intimately connected. And, since both hypertension and vascular dementia are caused by thickening and narrowing of small blood vessels, it’s no surprise to hear that vascular dementia risk rises right along with blood pressure.

But this risk is particularly high for women.

Last year, a group of University of California researchers published some startling results of a long-term study examining a possible connection between hypertension in early and mid-adulthood and the appearance of dementia later in life.

Beginning in 1964, the team collected health and lifestyle data on 5,646 men and women when they were 30 to 35 years old and again when they were in their 40s. Between 1996 and 2015, 532 people, or almost ten percent, were diagnosed with dementia.

Women who had high blood pressure at an average age of 44 had a 68 percent higher risk for dementia than those with normal blood pressure.

Stroke doubles the risk

If taking steps to prevent a stroke could slash your risk of dementia in half, you’d do whatever it took, right?

Well, that’s the finding of University of Exeter Medical School researchers, based on data from 3.2 million people across the globe.

Dr. Ilianna Lourida says, “We found that a history of stroke increases dementia risk by around 70 percent, and recent strokes more than doubled the risk. Given how common both stroke and dementia are, this strong link is an important finding. Improvements in stroke prevention … may therefore play a key role in dementia prevention.”

Eat for your heart and save your brain

A team of researchers from New Edith Cowan University examined data from over 50,000 people over 23 years.

One thing was clear: the people who consumed the most nitrate-rich vegetables had lower blood pressure and a much lower risk of heart problems.

And, by “most”, they really didn’t have to eat that much of the green stuff at all…

They found that eating just one cup of raw nitrate-rich vegetables (or ½ cup cooked) each day:

  • Reduced their systolic blood pressure an average of 2.5 mmHg;
  • And lowered their risk of heart problems between 12 to 26 percent!

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  1. Blood Pressure and Dementia – a Comprehensive ReviewTherapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders
  2. Late-life blood pressure association with cerebrovascular and Alzheimer disease pathologyNeurology
  3. High Blood Pressure in Midlife Tied to Later Dementia — The New York Times
  4. Stroke doubles dementia risk, concludes large-scale study — The University of Exeter
  5. Higher Risk of Vascular Dementia in Myocardial Infarction SurvivorsCirculation
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.