Story Highlights

Researchers found:

  • Nearly 5 percent of those with poor heart health showed cognitive problems four years later, compared to only 2.6 percent of those with ideal health
  • Better heart health was more common among men, people with higher levels of education, and those with higher incomes
  • Rates of mental impairment were more common among people with lower incomes and those with heart disease
Poor heart health can lead to poor brain function

A new BYU study finds that adults with poor heart health are more likely to develop cognitive (brain) problems as they age, such as memory and learning impairment.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, is the latest to show a strong connection between the human body’s most vital organs.

“What’s healthy for the heart also seems to be healthy for the brain,” said lead researcher Evan Thacker, assistant professor of health science at BYU. “Every element in our body is connected and keeping one part of it healthy helps keep other parts healthy.”

Thacker and his team used cardiovascular health data for 17,761 people aged 45 and older who had normal cognitive function and no history of stroke. His team then linked the cardiovascular health data to mental function scores four years later.

The researchers determined the initial cardiovascular health of the study subjects based on the American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 score, a score cataloging health in seven key areas:

  1. Smoking status
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Physical activity
  4. Body mass index
  5. Blood pressure
  6. Total cholesterol
  7. Fasting glucose

Cognitive function was determined by a series of tests, such as learning a list of 10 words and then having to recall them several minutes later, or, naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds.

They found the subjects with the lowest cardiovascular health scores were more likely to be impaired in learning, memory and verbal fluency tests than their counterparts with intermediate or ideal heart health.

Specifically, researchers found that 4.6 percent of people with the worst heart health showed cognitive impairment four years later, compared to only 2.7 percent for those with intermediate health scores and 2.6 percent for those with ideal health scores.

“Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better cognitive function,” Thacker said. “This is an encouraging message because intermediate health is a more realistic target for many individuals.”

Thacker says the study, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, should motivate people to action.

“Anyone can choose any one of those seven factors to improve on today,” he said. “Just choose one and start there and then move forward by choosing another one.”

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health collaborated on the study. Data for the study was taken from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Difference in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort study.