Middle-aged people who have high blood pressure, diabetes and who smoke are at higher risk of developing dementia later in life, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.  Researchers also found that people who only have slightly elevated blood pressure in middle age, a condition known as prehypertension, are also at greater risk of developing dementia in old age.

Researchers tracked nearly 16,000 participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study over 25 years to study the impact of hardening of people’s arteries on their long-term health. During that time about 1,500 individuals were diagnosed with dementia.

While the study did not show a direct cause and effect relationship, it did find that certain heart risk factors were associated with dementia. Some of the findings include:

  • Diabetes was associated with a 71 percent increased risk of dementia.
  • High blood pressure increased the risk of dementia by 39 percent.
  • People with prehypertension had an increased risk of dementia of 31 percent.
  • Smokers faced a 41 percent greater risk of dementia.

Other factors that influenced dementia risk:

  • African Americans had a 36 percent greater risk to develop dementia than whites.
  • People without a high school degree had a 61 percent increased risk compared to graduates.

Researchers think that cardiovascular risk factors lead to strokes, which in turn damage the brain and cause cognitive impairment.

Many of the risk factors that impact heart health and dementia can be modified and include managing blood pressure, healthy diets, getting exercise and quitting smoking. A healthy lifestyle can help your heart and your brain.  

How's your heart health? Novant Health has launched a community-wide campaign called the 10,000 Healthy Hearts Challenge with a goal to educate 10,000 people about their heart health by 2018. Take the online heart health risk assessment, which analyzes cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes and body mass index. Then, tag five friends on social media using #NHHealthyHearts to spread the word. Once you accept the challenge, look for helpful wellness tips, recipe ideas and stress management reminders sent to your inbox to manage your heart health.