Cardiovascular risk factors also increase the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, preventive measures that help reduce heart attacks and strokes also deal with dementia.
Cardiovascular risk factors are not only related to heart attack, cerebrovascular accidents (stroke) or peripheral arterial disease; they also influence the development of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. These are the main vascular risk factors for dementia (Alzheimer’s accounts for between 60 and 80% of all cases). From the fifth decade of life:
- Fifty-five years: high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Sixty-five years: having suffered from cardiovascular disease (such as myocardial infarction or angina pectoris).
- 70-75 years: diabetes and stroke.
- Eighty years: diabetes, previous stroke, and not having blood pressure under pharmacological control.
Specifically, the analysis revealed that people with diabetes at age 55 were four times more likely to develop dementia than those without diabetes at the same age.
Also, individuals with heart disease at age 65 were almost twice as likely to develop dementia later in life than those without any heart condition. Those affected by a stroke at age 70 tripled their risk of dementia.
This is how vascular problems affect Alzheimer’s
The relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and Alzheimer’s has been known for a long time and has become more established in recent years. This is corroborated by Neus Falgas, a neurologist at the Alzheimer’s Unit and other cognitive disorders at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, who has explained to CuídatePlus the mechanisms behind this connection.
Alzheimer’s disease has specific pathophysiology and particular processes that trigger it. “It is known that there are two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau, that begin to be deposited in the brain”, indicates the specialist. “The initial mechanism behind the malfunction of these proteins in the brain is unknown, but it is clear that neurons begin to fail when they accumulate, neuronal communication deteriorates, and that is when the process of neurodegeneration begins, which can develop over many years until symptoms appear.”
What role do high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes play in all this process? Cardiovascular risk factors weaken arteries throughout the body. “The arteries carry oxygen and food to the tissues, both from the heart and brain and the rest of the organs,” says Falgas. “And if the brain is not well oxygenated and nourished, the brain tissue is weaker.” Thus, the brain is less prepared “to combat any alteration or abnormal protein deposit in it.”
In addition, it is a bidirectional process since vascular problems not only increase the risk of Alzheimer’s but also, in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease, the risk of stroke is increased because the proteins that accumulate are also deposited in the cerebral arteries, weakening them further.
Vascular (and non-vascular) risk factors for Alzheimer’s
These are the cardiovascular risk factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias:
- Overweight or obese.
- High alcohol consumption.
There are other non-cardiovascular risk factors that, like the previous ones, are modifiable (some to a lesser extent):
- Social isolation.
- Low educational level.
- Bad hearing.
These non-modifiable risk factors play a determining role in Alzheimer’s:
- Age is the leading risk factor. With ageing, the disease risk increases, especially after 65.
- The female sex . 2 out of 3 Alzheimer’s patients are women.
Family history. “Except in exceptional cases, Alzheimer’s disease is not genetic. That is, it is not transmitted from parents to children. However, as in many other diseases, if there are many cases of Alzheimer’s in the same family, especially at an early age, the chances of suffering from it increase.
How to prevent Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is a neurodegenerative disease and, therefore, progressive and irreversible. It is also the first cause of neurological disability, causing great social and economic costs in modern societies.
The existence of non-modifiable risk factors prevents Alzheimer’s from being prevented in a high percentage of cases, but the margin of action is much broader than is usually considered. Given the significant influence of cardiovascular risk factors, advice to avoid a heart attack, stroke or peripheral arterial disease also serves to reduce the chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s, to which neurologists add other more specific recommendations:
- Do physical exercise regularly. Walking an hour a day may be enough.
- No Smoking.
- Do not drink excessively.
- A balanced diet, if possible, based on the Mediterranean diet.
- Stay mentally active.
- Have an active social life.
- Sleep well since, during sleep. The brain carries out a purifying process that helps strengthen neurons and neural circuits.