By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
Jan. 29, 2013 -- Older women with heart problems may be at greater risk for mental changes that are thought to signal the beginnings of a type of dementia, a new study shows.
Called vascular dementia, it is a type of mental decline that's thought to be caused by problems in blood flow to the brain. It is believed to be different from the loss of memory and function that happens in Alzheimer's disease, which is linked to the buildup of proteins in the brain.
The study, which is published in the journal JAMA Neurology, followed 1,450 men and women in the Rochester, Minn., area. At the start of the study, all participants, who were in their 70s and 80s, were free of memory loss or thinking difficulties. Researchers gave them tests to measure brain function every 15 months.
After about four years, 348 people in the study had developed some form of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This can include problems such as memory loss, having trouble making decisions, coming up with the right words, or navigating a familiar neighborhood.
Of those people, 94 had developed the type of mild cognitive impairment linked to vascular dementia. This type does not include memory loss, but does include the other problems such as with decision making, reasoning, and visual-spatial relations.
Heart health did seem to influence the risk of developing these types of mental changes. Even after researchers took into account other factors known to raise the risk of dementia (like family history, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and exercise) having heart problems -- including atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease, and heart failure -- nearly doubled a person's risk for developing mild cognitive impairment without memory loss.
The link was particularly strong in women. Women with heart problems were about three times more likely to develop it than women without heart concerns. The link was not significant in men.
Advice to Patients
Researchers say preventing heart disease, through regular exercise and a healthy diet, is the first step. For people who've already been diagnosed with heart disease, regular checkups to make sure diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol are under control may be important for brain and heart health.
"If we reduce the risk of the conditions that lead to cardiac disease, hopefully we can reduce the risk of developing MCI, and thereby reduce the risk of developing dementia," says researcher Rosebud Roberts, MD, professor of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
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