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Midlife Cardiovascular Risk Factors May Increase Chances of Dementia

Man with midlife cardiovascular risk

A large, long-term study suggests that middle- aged Americans who have vascular health risk factors—including diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking—have a greater chance of suffering from dementia later in life. The study, published in JAMA Neurology, was funded by NIH.

“With an aging population, dementia is becoming a greater health concern. This study supports the importance of controlling vascular risk factors like high blood pressure early in life in an effort to prevent dementia as we age,” said Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which partially funded the study. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”

The study was led by Dr. Rebecca Gottesman, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University. Her team analyzed the data of 15,744 people who participated in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. From 1987 to 1989, the participants, who were black or white and 45-64 years of age, underwent a battery of medical tests during their initial examinations at one of four centers in four different states. Over the next 25 years they were examined four more times. Cognitive tests of memory and thinking were administered during all but the first and third exams.

Her team found that 1,516 participants were diagnosed with dementia during an average of 23 follow-up years. Initially, when they analyzed the influence of factors recorded during the first exams, the researchers found that the chances of dementia increased most strongly with age followed by the presence of APOE4, a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Whites with one copy of the APOE4 gene had a greater chance of dementia than blacks. Other factors included race and education: blacks had a higher chance of dementia than whites; those who did not graduate from high school were also at higher risk.

In agreement with previous studies, an analysis of vascular risk factors showed that participants who had diabetes or high blood pressure, also called hypertension, had a higher chance of developing dementia. In fact, diabetes was almost as strong a predictor of dementia as the presence of the APOE4 gene.

“Our results contribute to a growing body of evidence linking midlife vascular health to dementia,” said Gottesman. “These are modifiable risk factors. Our hope is that by addressing these types of factors early, people can reduce the chances that they will suffer from dementia later in life.”

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
Carla.Garnett@nih.gov

Staff Writers:

Eric Bock
Eric.Bock@nih.gov

Dana Talesnik
Dana.Talesnik@nih.gov

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