Take Care of Your Heart from the Start

It’s no secret that cardiovascular problems during the middle and latter years can cause cognitive decline as people age. However, a new study shows that high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and elevated blood sugar in early adulthood are also linked to cognitive deficits later in life.1

The study started with over 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 30. Cognitive function tests were administered at a 25-year follow-up. The participants with the three health problems listed above performed worse on memory tests, executive function (the ability to plan, organize, and pay attention to detail), and mental processing speed than those who did not suffer from the health difficulties. Moreover, the research shows that the longer blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels are elevated, the greater the risk for cognitive deficits later in life.

To explore the effect of vascular risk factors on dementia, a research team led by Dr. Rebecca Gottesman, at Johns Hopkins University, studied nearly 16,000 middle-aged people who participated in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. The people enrolled in the study were between 44 and 66 years. Over a 25-year period, the researchers examined the participants five times with a variety of medical tests. Cognitive tests of memory and thinking were given during the second, fourth, and fifth exams. 

More than 1,500 of the participants were diagnosed with dementia over the 25-year period. The analysis confirmed prior findings that those with vascular risk factors in midlife, such as diabetes or hypertension, had a greater chance of developing dementia as they aged. 

This body of research provides us with another reason to pay attention to heart health and fitness early in life.


  1. Yaffe K, Vittinghoff E, Pletcher M, et al. Early adult to midlife cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive function. Circulation, 2014; 129: 1560-1567.
  2. Associations Between Midlife Vascular Risk Factors and 25-Year Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Cohort. Gottesman RF, Albert MS, Alonso A, Coker LH, Coresh J, Davis SM, Deal JA, McKhann GM, Mosley TH, Sharrett AR, Schneider ALC, Windham BG, Wruck LM, Knopman DS. JAMA Neurol. 2017 Aug 7. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2017.1658. 
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