Poor Cardiovasular Health Linked to Cognitive Impairment

Evan Thacker PhD Brigham Young UniversityMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Evan Thacker PhD
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah


MedicalResearch: What are the main findings of the study?

Dr. Thacker: In this study of over 17,000 American adults aged 45 and above, we first measured people’s cardiovascular health based on their smoking habits, diet, physical activity, body weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar. We then tracked these people for several years with cognitive function tests which measure memory and thinking abilities. The main finding of our study was that people who had the lowest levels of cardiovascular health at the beginning of the study were more likely to experience cognitive impairment – poor performance on the cognitive function tests – at the end of the study. People who had medium to high levels of cardiovascular health were less likely to experience cognitive impairment.

MedicalResearch: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Dr. Thacker: Before we started this study we hypothesized that each level of better cardiovascular health would be related to better cognitive function. For example, if we divided people into three groups of low, medium, and high cardiovascular health, we expected the risk for cognitive impairment would be highest in the low cardiovascular health group, medium in the medium cardiovascular health group, and lowest in the high cardiovascular health group. However, we found that the medium and high cardiovascular health groups actually had about the same low risk for cognitive impairment – 2.7 percent of people who had medium cardiovascular health and 2.6 percent of people who had high cardiovascular health experienced cognitive impairment, compared with 4.6 percent of people who had low cardiovascular health. As we wrote in our paper, “this pattern suggests that even intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels of cardiovascular health. This is an encouraging message for population health promotion, because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target than ideal cardiovascular health for many individuals.”
MedicalResearch: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Thacker: The American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 is an easy way to measure and track cardiovascular health using just 7 factors – non-smoking, healthy diet, physical activity, body weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar. Prior research has shown very clearly that people who have ideal levels of these 7 factors are very unlikely to experience heart attacks, strokes, or death from cardiovascular disease. Our study shows that people with good cardiovascular health are also less likely to experience memory and thinking problems. What’s healthy for the heart also seems to be healthy for the brain.
MedicalResearch: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Thacker: In our study we compared people who had different levels of cardiovascular health, but we did not look at improvements to individuals’ cardiovascular health over time. Our study raises the question “If people with low cardiovascular health improved to an intermediate or high level of cardiovascular health, for example by quitting smoking, improving their diet, increasing the physical activity, losing weight, and getting their blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar under control, could they protect themselves from cognitive decline as they age?” We feel that future research should try to answer this question. If we could determine whether improving one’s cardiovascular health helps preserve memory and thinking ability, we could use that knowledge to improve the lives of elderly people.


The American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 and Incident Cognitive Impairment: The REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study
Evan L. Thacker,Sarah R. Gillett,Virginia G. Wadley,Frederick W. Unverzagt,Suzanne E. Judd,Leslie A. McClure,Virginia J. Howard,and Mary Cushman

J Am Heart Assoc. 2014;3:originally published June 11, 2014, doi:10.1161/JAHA.113.000635


Last Updated on June 13, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD