Of hearts and minds: how heart health can predict brain health in people with Alzheimer’s disease

Lay summary by Kristyn Bates

An American survey conducted in 2012 found that Alzheimer’s disease was the most feared of all the diseases that burden humankind. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, where brain function progressively deteriorates over time, having a devastating effect on the affected individual, their loved ones and carers.

For the vast majority of cases, we don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, however several risk factors have been identified. These risk factors include things that cannot be changed such as genetic markers and age, but also some behaviours relating to lifestyle choices that can be modified. Amongst these modifiable risk factors, cardiovascular health is an attractive target for preventative strategies because vascular disease has been associated with increased risk for dementia.

The Framingham Risk Score (FRS) is a composite measure used to predict the likelihood of coronary heart disease (i.e. heart attack, angina, and heart failure) over a 10-year period. The FRS takes into account age, gender, smoking, cholesterol levels, history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and blood pressure. The value of the FRS is that it can be used to predict future cardiovascular disease and also used to guide therapeutic interventions to reduce the risk for heart disease in an easy and accessible measure.

A new study led by Giovanna Viticchi and colleagues, examined whether the FRS could be used to predict the rate of cognitive decline in a twelve month period in patients already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The results showed that the FRS was predictive of cognitive impairment and disease progression. When the researchers took into account genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease (people who carry the APOEε4 allele) and who also had vascular damage, the predictive value of the FRS was even higher.

At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, therefore it is very important to find ways to either prevent the disease from occurring or slow the progression of the disease when it has taken hold. The results from this study suggest that improving cardiovascular health can help slow the decline in brain function for people living with Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, patients at greatest risk may receive the greatest benefit from adopting this strategy.

Keeping hearts healthy may therefore prove an effective strategy in the fight against dementia.

For further information

Read the Neurobiology of Aging original research article which this summary is based on Framingham Risk Score Can Predict Cognitive Decline Progression in Alzheimer’s Disease (July 2015).

Visit the profile of the research ambassador, Kristyn Bates, who wrote this summary.

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