Vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and obesity may cause the brain to age faster, possibly 10 years faster, according to a study published Monday in the journal Neurology. Researchers found people with these risks factors had smaller brains and had diminished brain function later in life.
“Vascular risk factors affect our brain’s and our ability to think even in middle life and we need to focus on treating these things if we are going to have a healthy mind and body,” says study author Dr. Charles DeCarli. Eating healthy and exercising are important but if you develop hypertension and if you develop diabetes, the most important thing is to treat them, he adds.
Researchers looked at 1,352 people from the Framingham Offspring Study. Participants received body mass index measurements, blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes tests, as well as brain MRI scans. If patients had previously experienced a stroke or dementia they were excluded.
Identifying and understanding these how these risk factors play a role in accelerating the aging process might make someone with hypertension, for example, more likely to seek treatment earlier, says DeCarli.
“People need to understand what they are setting themselves up for later in life,” says Dr. Maria Carrillo, a senior director at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Anything that actually compromises cardiovascular health has the potential for comprising their brain health.”
“We (the Alzheimer’s Association) do tell people they need to watch their weight and be physically active as early as one can and it’s important to control these factors because they may impact their risk for Alzheimer’s later in life.”
DiCarli hopes this study brings attention to the importance of treating these vascular risk factors early. “You talk to 70-year-olds and their biggest complaint is their brain’s not working well,” he says.