Families that incorporate a list of seven simple health behaviors into their lifestyles can ward off not only heart disease, but also cognitive impairment, including Alzheimer's, experts say. Starting when families are young provides the best chance that clan members will be able to enjoy health benefits that extend into old age.
"Family is the perfect environment in which to promote health in terms of the American Heart Association's 'Life's Simple 7,'" said Evan Thacker, an assistant professor of health at Brigham Young University who last week unveiled research showing that taking care of your heart offers protection against cognitive decline, too.
The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association have been promoting the "Simple 7" list that includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate physical activity, knowing your body mass index and keeping it in the healthy range, controlling blood pressure and maintaining both healthy cholesterol and fasting glucose levels.
That list, said Thacker, was developed "because lots of research showed if you do those seven things, there's very low risk of death from cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke."
A 2012 Marist Institute for Public Opinion survey found that Americans are more afraid of developing Alzheimer's than any other disease.
Brigham Young University Department of Health Science's latest study, completed with help from University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health researchers, found that taking care of heart health extends benefits to brain health — specifically preventing cognitive decline, including dementia.
"Our study is a step toward understanding the link between heart health and dementia, Thacker said. "Every element in our body is connected and keeping one part of it healthy helps keep other parts healthy."
"There's increasing evidence that lifestyle factors have been linked to development of Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Olajide A. Williams, director of acute stroke services at Columbia University, who was not involved in the study. "In a way, that's a good thing, because it puts certain things under our control. There's a famous saying: 'Genetics loads the cannon, but human behavior pulls the trigger.' In the early days of Alzheimer's, we were not really sure whether there were any potentially modifiable risk factors."
Evidence is mounting, he said, that "a signficant amount of the risk is in our own control." Some observational studies have estimated that preventable risk factors account for nearly half of the Alzheimer's risk.
"The challenge is that just as with heart disease and stroke, prevention requires a lot of commitment at the family and individual level," he said. "It requires you to take control."
Nuts and bolts
The researchers scored subjects' cardiovascular health based on the "Life's Simple 7" factors, each known to lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
More than 17,750 people 45 and older who showed no cognitive decline and had never suffered a stroke were divided into high, middle or low cardiovascular health categories. Researchers then tied that data to mental function scores from four years later, which were based on a series of tests such as learning a list of words and recalling them a few minutes later, seeing how many members of a common category like animals one could come up with in a minute, and others.
The data came from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort study. That data was used earlier in different research to note modest increased risk of stroke for those who are inactive.