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Pair of studies strengthens link between heart and brain health

October 30, 2013

Heart and brain health have long been linked together, and a pair of recently released studies have strengthened the understanding of this relationship. Researchers found that both hardened arteries and high blood sugar are associated with changes in the brain linked to memory, and taken together the two studies should encourage older adults to make heart-conscious living a staple of a healthy lifestyle for seniors.

The role of plaques
The first study, performed by scientists from the University of Pittsburgh, was focused on more than 90 people over the age of 87 who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. At the start of the trial, researchers used brain scans to measure the level of beta-amyloid plaques - a substance associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The team also measured the hardening of the subjects' arteries. After two years, participants who had stiffer arteries showed a greater presence of plaques as well as greater white-matter lesions, which are associated with strokes.

"This study adds to growing evidence that hardening of the arteries is associated with cerebrovascular disease that does not show symptoms," lead author Dr. Timothy Hughes told HealthDay News. "Now we can add Alzheimer's-type lesions to the list."

Blood sugar and memory
While the first study was concerned with the stiffness of arteries, the second was more focused on understanding what role high blood sugar could play in cognitive function. Researchers from Germany looked at the memory problems and blood sugar of more than 140 participants who had an average age of 63, none of whom had diabetes. The study team found that participants who had the highest blood sugar levels tended to perform the worst on the memory test they administered. Not only that, but high blood sugar was associated with a smaller hippocampus.

A manageable issue
Perhaps most significantly, the results point toward a manageable risk factor associated with cognitive decline that can often throw a wrench in healthy aging. Still, despite the link between heart and brain health, there are a large number of Americans not taking proactive steps. For instance, approximately 67 million adults have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's about one-third of all American adults.