New Research Links Alzheimer's to Risk Factors for Strokes

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Increasingly, we’re learning that what’s good for the heart is good for the head. And that link is starting to prove especially true in relation to Alzheimer’s disease.

    A new study linked high blood pressure and other known risk factors for a stroke with the increased risk of cognitive problems. This increased risk remains for people who have never experienced a stroke. The study is part of the “REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Strokes (REGARDS)” study that is trying to track stroke risk and cognitive health among a diverse sample of the U.S. population who are 45 years old and above. This study is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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    “Strokes, which affect some 795,000 Americans each year, occur when blood vessels that supply the brain rupture or become blocked,” the NIH reported. “A stroke can cause a host of cognitive disabilities, including effects on memory, speech and language, and everyday problem solving. But even without suffering a stroke, individuals at risk for stroke may experience cognitive problems as their blood vessels deteriorate.”

    In determining their findings, the research team collected data on approximately 24,000 study participants who did not have a history of stroke or cognitive impairment and who did not show signs of a stroke during the study. At the beginning of the study, the scientists assessed each person’s stroke risk by using the Framingham Stroke Risk Profile, which analyzes risk factors such as age, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems. Additionally, the research team used a screening test to determine the participants’ cognitive health; this test was administered annually.

    During the course of the study, researchers found that 1,907 people who did not show evidence of a stroke displayed cognitive impairment, which was significantly associated with the results (age and an enlargement of their left ventricle) of their initial Framingham score. The researchers noted that each increase in age of 10 years doubled the risk of cognitive impairment. Furthermore, having an enlarged left ventricle, which can be a result of high blood pressure, increased the risk by approximately 30%. The researchers also conducted a separate analysis that excluded people with an enlarged left ventricle. They found that high blood pressure was an independent predictor of cognitive decline and that each 10 mm HG increase in systolic blood pressure increased the risk by 4 percent.

    Dr. Frederick Unverzagt, who is a professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and lead author for this stroke study, noted that people in the study who had cognitive decline may have had silent strokes or other changes that impacted the brain’s blood supply. However, the study also reinforced the scientific community’s growing understanding of the link between strokes and Alzheimer’s due to high blood pressure.

    The good news is that, according to the National Stroke Association (NSA), up to 80 percent of all strokes can be prevented. So what steps can you take to lower your risk of a stroke? The NSA recommends the following:

    • Know your blood pressure. Work with your doctor on a treatment plan if you have high blood pressure since this can be a major risk factor for a stroke.
    • Identify atrial fibrillation, also known as an abnormal heartbeat, which can increase stroke risk by 500%. Work with your doctor on a treatment plan.
    • Stop smoking. Smoking doubles the risk of stroke through damages blood vessel walls, increases artery clogging, raises blood pressure and makes the heart pump harder.
    • Control alcohol use by drinking no more than two drinks a day.
    • Know cholesterol levels, and make sure your total cholesterol level is not more than 200.
    • Control diabetes.
    • Manage exercise and diet. Exercise five times a week. Also, eat a diet that’s low in calories, salt, saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol. Try to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
    • Treat circulation problems.
    • Recognize and treat Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs), which have the same symptoms as a stroke. Research has found that up to 40 percent of people who have a TIA may experience a stroke.

    So the best prescription is to make every effort to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle through using your head to make good choices. Both your head and your heart will thank you!

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Published On: November 14, 2011