By Jeffrey Kopman
It's not wise to neglect your heart health, for the sake of your heart -- but doing so could also lead to even more unwise decisions later in life.
Researchers have found that people who have heart disease risk factors, like smoking and an unhealthy diet, could be more likely to experience cognitive decline in middle age, according to new research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.
In 2012, researchers discovered that cognitive decline can be evident as early as age 45. This led scientists to believe that risk factors from young adulthood may set in motion the process of declining brain function.
Knowing that cardiovascular conditions, like hypertension, are associated with cognitive impairment in seniors, the researchers considered the hypothesis that this might also be true in younger adults.
They collected cardiovascular risk scores and cognitive test scores of 3,778 participants ages 35-82. Subjects were put into groups based on age -- four groups represented 10-year periods, with the last group being anyone over the age of 75. Cardiovascular risk scores were determined based on blood pressure, smoking habits, diabetes, and body mass index.
The results of both heart risk and cognitive tests, across all age groups, showed that relatively poor performance on the cognitive test was associated with a higher risk score for cardiovascular disease, especially for subjects who had diabetes and/or smoked. Adults ages 35 to 44 performed the best on both tests, and the results worsened as age increased.
"The best way to treat cognitive decline is to prevent it from developing in the first place," said Reena Pande, MD, medical director of the Vascular Diagnostic Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and an Everyday Health blogger. "We need to get healthy and stay health to limit heart disease and cognitive decline."
Young Adults' Heart Risk Factors: Smoking, Drinking, Fatty Foods
"We sometimes forget that the path to heart and vascular disease begins early in life," said Dr. Pande. "Smoking, physical inactivity, or obesity at a younger age have a major impact on heart and brain function a few decades later."
Fatty foods and binge drinking are common young adult risk factors for heart disease, but the American Heart Association study found smoking to be one of the biggest indicators of cognitive decline.
"There clearly is a dose response among smokers, with heavy smokers having a lower cognitive function than light or non-smokers," stated Hanneke Joosten, M.D., lead author of the new study in Stroke and a nephrology fellow at the University Medical Center in Groningen, The Netherlands, in a press release. "It is likely that smoking cessation has a beneficial effect on cognitive function."
Previous studies had linked smoking to cognitive decline, and the Dutch researchers think their study provides one more reason to promote smoking cessation.
"[This shows] the need for effective smoking cessation treatments -- not only for the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular events, and stroke, but also for the prevention of cognitive decline," the study authors wrote.
There has been no decline in [U.S.?] teen smoking since 2003, according to a 2012 surgeon general report. Combined with a higher rate of diabetes -- and the fact that 67 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 admit to binge drinking -- young adults are putting themselves at high risk for heart disease and early cognitive decline.
But there's hope for reversing the trend: Smoking prevention programs in schools appear to be helping young people stay away from the unhealthy habit, according to a recent review published in The Cochrane Library.
That review found that one year after participating in a smoking prevention programs, non-smokers were far more likely to abstain from smoking than non-smokers who did not participate
"As a society, our role models, like parents and teachers, need to set good examples for our children. We ourselves need to live healthy - eat right, exercise regularly, and don't smoke," said Pande.
If these programs remain effective for teens, their risk of cardiovascular disease and early cognitive decline could decrease in adulthood.
"If you smoke, you should quit. If you have diabetes or high cholesterol, you should talk to your doctor and get these treated," exclaimed Pande. "And if you eat poorly or don't exercise, you should get healthy, eat right, and get moving."
"Smoking and Diabetes Linked to Early Cognitive Decline" originally appeared on Everyday Health.