More than any other disease, Americans 60 or older are afraid of developing dementia (35%), followed by cancer (23%) and stroke (15%). While there is no certain way to prevent all types of dementia, a study published by the Journal of American Medical Association Neurology found that middle-aged people who have high blood pressure, diabetes and who smoke are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Dr. Mishi Jackson, at Novant Health Union Cross Family Medicine in Kernersville, North Carolina, explains the link between heart health and dementia, and what you can do to try to prevent it.

More than 1 type

“Many of my patients don’t worry about dementia until they or a loved one starts to forget things,” said Jackson. “Then, there is a very real concern there.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Risk factors include age and genetics, and most people are familiar with how the disease can result in memory loss and a decline in cognitive function. But, fewer people are aware of vascular dementia, sometimes referred to as vascular cognitive impairment.

Vascular dementia is caused by conditions that block or reduce blood flow to the brain. This form of dementia can occur rapidly as a result of a stroke, or gradually as fatty blood vessels build up in the body and prevent healthy oxygen and nutrients from reaching the brain. 

Heart of the matter

“I always want to meet my patients where they are,” said Jackson. “So, I review their health history, conduct a physical exam and then we go over their medication and lifestyle.”

The goal: Determine what modifiable changes, like an increase in exercise, can be made toward a healthier lifestyle.

“A healthy brain has to have healthy blood flow,” Jackson said. “When you exercise, you are reducing the fat content in your blood and by doing so, you are reducing your risk of dementia and stroke down the road.”

Jackson recommends that patients should work their way up to at least 30 minutes of exercise five to seven days a week.

Exercise also releases endorphins, chemicals in your brain that help you feel better. “Endorphins reduce stress and improve your outlook on life,” Jackson said. “When you have a better outlook, you make better choices.”

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% increased risk of dementia.
  • High blood pressure increased the risk of dementia by 39%.
  • People with prehypertension had a 31% increased risk of dementia.
  • Smokers faced a 41% greater risk of dementia.

Maintaining a healthy diet is also important. Jackson advised that patients should eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid saturated fats found in fried foods and red meat.

It’s not too late

“Sometimes patients think that once you have the diagnosis, there is nothing you can do,” said Jackson. “And that is just not true.”

To be clear, dementia is a progressive disease. It is always going to advance, but in some cases much can be done to slow the progression. For starters, Jackson recommends that patients maintain a healthy diet, continue to exercise and get enough sleep to help reduce stress. She also recommends word searches and crossword puzzles to help keep the brain strong and to maintain healthy thinking habits.

On a case by case basis, Jackson will also prescribe medication or refer her patients to Novant Health Memory Care.

“Here at Novant Health, we have really good programs for patients with dementia,” she said. “Our memory care clinic allows patients and their family members to receive help with issues that they may not be able to work through themselves.”

At the memory care clinic, patients and their family members or caretakers receive a personalized treatment plan to help manage the disease and maintain their quality of life.

“The number one piece of advice I can give to caretakers is to start with good self-care,” said Jackson. “If you don’t take good care of yourself, then you won’t have the energy and the stamina needed to take care of your loved one.”

Do you know how old your heart is? 75% of adults are living with a heart age older than it should be. That means our hearts are aging quicker than our bodies. Calculate your heart age then sign-up for Vision 2020: a series of simple, fun challenges focused on lowering your heart age and improving your overall health. We hope you’ll join us. NovantHealth.org/Vision2020

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