In their new study, BYU researchers found those with low cardiovascular health were almost twice as likely to show cognitive impairment — including "learning, memory and verbal fluency," they said in a written statement — as those who were heart healthy, 4.6 percent compared to the 2.6 percent for those with the best health scores.
Though those percentages are small, they equal a significant number of people, Thacker said. He noted that among the elderly, dementias are quite common, even if people are otherwise generally healthy. The Alzheimer's Association estimates 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease right now, including about 200,000 people who developed early onset disease before age 65. Direct costs of the disease are estimated at $214 billion a year.
Sooner, not later
"Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better cognitive function," Thacker said in a written statement accompanying the study. "This is an encouraging message because intermediate health is a more realistic target for many individuals.
"Anyone can choose any of those seven factors to improve on today," he told the Deseret News, suggesting individuals and families can then build on that achievement.
Healthy behaviors, Williams said, ameliorate the risk of developing cognitive decline. The evidence, while largely observational, is both convincing and increasing. "The earlier healthy habits are inculcated, the more likely an individual is to maintain those healthy habits. There is more evidence that targeting healthy habits of children before they are teenagers and adolescents, reducing obesity early in life, along with all the risk factors that go along with it, really predicts a healthier cardiovascular and weight profile in the future.
"If you make sure that kids do simple things like eat a healthy diet and are physically active — and make sure that they enjoy it and have fun doing it — it predicts greater health later in life," Williams said.
The "Simple 7":
- Kick smoking. Smoking increases risk of heart disease, aneurysms, lung disease, hardened arteries and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Eat a healthy diet. Federal health experts say fruits and vegetables should fill half your plate, while whole grains and protein each take up a quarter.
- Get regular physical activity. The official recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate exercise. That's 30 minutes five days a week.
- Know your body mass index. A calculation of weight in relation to height, BMI should be below 25. You can find a simple BMI calculator on the CDC site.
- Track your blood pressure. Blood pressure should be below 120/80. Good diet, exercise, not smoking and controlling weight all help.
- Decrease your cholesterol. Total cholesterol should be below 200. The body makes most of it, but diet also contributes. It can lead to blocked arteries and other serious problems.
- Get a fasting blood sugar test. Fasting glucose should be below 100. Above that indicates pre-diabetes or diabetes.
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