Unhealthy Heart May Be Bigger Threat to Women’s Brains Than Men’s

Written by Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter >

Thursday, January 6, 2022 — What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and a new study suggests connectivity may be especially important for women.

The study, which included more than 1,800 adults in their 50s and 60s, found that those with heart disease, or its associated risk factors, generally showed greater declines in their memory and thinking skills over time.

This is not surprising, as previous studies have revealed a relationship between heart health and mental acuity. But the link turned out to be particularly strong among women, the researchers found.

“It is critically important for both women and men that cardiovascular disease risk factors are addressed and well controlled,” said study author Michelle Milky, a professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

But, she added, these findings suggest that this may be especially important for cognitive function in women.

The study was published January 5 in the journal Neurology , It is the latest that highlights the relationship between heart and brain health.

The brain, like the heart, depends on healthy blood vessels to supply cells with oxygen and nutrients. Research over the years has found that many risk factors for heart disease and stroke are also linked to a faster decline in cognitive abilities with age — and possibly an increased risk of dementia.

These risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and obesity.

On the flip side, research suggests that some heart-healthy practices, such as physical exercise and a diet rich in fish, vegetables, and “good” fats, may help protect the aging brain. And a 2019 clinical trial found that drastic lowering of high blood pressure in older adults reduces the risk of MCI.

This indicates a mild but marked deterioration in memory and thinking that in some cases it is progressing to dementia.

According to Milky, it’s not clear why poor cardiovascular health might be so much tougher for women to perceive.

It’s natural to speculate that menopause and hormonal changes could play a role, she said. But Milky added that there are many other possibilities as well.

For example, heart disease in women and men can be different. Women are more likely than men to have dysfunction throughout the body’s smaller blood vessels, as opposed to blockages in the larger blood vessels that supply the heart. This can contribute to cognitive decline.

In addition, Milky said, there is the question of whether women’s risk factors are as aggressively managed as men’s.

The results were based on 1,857 adults between the ages of 50 and 69. Most – 79% – either had heart disease or a history of stroke, or any of several risk factors: obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

Participants underwent standard tests of memory and other cognitive abilities initially, and then every 15 months.

Mielke’s team found that while cardiovascular risk factors were more common in men, they had a greater impact on cognitive performance in women over time. Among people with heart disease, for example, women showed twice the rate of reduction as men in the overall composite score.

It all fits with the body of research on the heart-brain relationship, said Claire Sexton, director of science programs and communication for the Alzheimer’s Association.

She said it was critical for everyone to see their doctor, know their numbers, and control cardiovascular risk factors. There may be an “extra benefit to your brain,” Sexton said.

She agreed that there could be different reasons for the current findings — including differences in lifestyle factors, such as exercise, between women and men.

These things are important long before aging.

“This study adds to the evidence that even in middle age, what’s bad for the heart is bad for the brain,” said Dr. Richard Lipton, professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

He said that while cardiovascular disease risk factors are more common in middle-aged men than women, this study suggests they are more harmful to women’s brain function.

Lipton and Sexton, who were not involved in the study, note that a drop in test scores does not mean a person will develop dementia.

Some degree of slackening is part of the natural aging process, Lipton said. And in many cases, it may be related to a specific health condition or drug effects.

Sexton also said that cardiovascular health is only one factor in cognitive well-being. Research also suggests that people can support their brain health by staying socially and mentally active, getting enough sleep and seeking help for depression or other mental health issues.

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