08/13/2009 - Articles

Healthy heart means healthy brain

By: Susan Aldridge, medical journalist, PhD


Alzheimer’s disease is said to affect one in six Americans over the age of 70.  There’s an increasing focus upon how health, and particularly heart health, in mid life affects your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life. 

A new report from the long-running Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study now reveals that diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking in earlier years significantly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  The researchers, from a number of centers in the United States, studied over 11,000 ARIC participants who were in the study in 1990 to 1992 to see which ones were hospitalized for Alzheimer’s disease during follow up.  This data on Alzheimer’s disease cases was linked to heart health factors like diabetes, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure.

The findings of this ARIC study tell us a lot about Alzheimer’s disease prevention.  Those who smoked were 70% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.  Those who had high blood pressure had a 60% increased risk.  Diabetes doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  However, in this study, obesity appeared not to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease – this does contradict findings from previous work.  When the risk factors were present at a younger age, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease was higher.

People are increasingly aware on how to keep their heart healthy – through avoiding diabetes, high blood pressure and other risk factors. It is interesting that these factors also influence the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  It may be that there is a common underlying mechanism affecting both heart and brain – perhaps hardening and thickening of the arteries, reducing blood supply to both organs.  Therefore, heart health and brain health appear to be inextricably linked and the same lifestyle efforts will help both aspects of long term health. 



Alonso A, Mosley T et al Risk of dementia hospitalisation associated with cardiovascular risk factors in midlife and older age: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry August 2009; doi:10.1136/jnnp.2009.176818

Created on: 08/14/2009
Reviewed on: 08/13/2009

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