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Protect your heart and your brain

Daniel Couglin / 18 September 2017

Want to lower your risk of dementia? Protect your heart, say researchers.

Looking after your heart is important if you want to lower your risk of dementia
Looking after your heart is important if you want to lower your risk of dementia

A major review of dementia risk factors by The Lancet journal has confirmed what mounting evidence has suggested: conditions that damage the heart significantly increase an individual's risk of developing dementia. In a nutshell, looking after your ticker is key if you want to lower your risk of dementia.

Cardiovascular disease and other conditions that damage the heart are strongly linked to vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer's.

According to Blood Pressure UK, the clogged arteries associated with heart disease and other vascular conditions reduce the blood supply to the brain, adversely affecting memory, thinking and language skills.

Take a look at the four main cardiovascular dementia risk factors and find out what you can do to lower your risk.

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Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes causes high levels of glucose in the blood, which over time, can damage the walls of the arteries, affecting blood flow to the organs, including the heart and the brain.

On top of the damage to the arteries, recent research from the University of Bath indicates that high blood sugar damages an enzyme in the brain that protects against dementia. It comes as no surprise then that type 2 diabetes is a major dementia risk factor. “Diabetes can double a person’s risk of developing dementia,” says Dr Clare Walton, research manager at Alzheimer's UK.

Lower your risk: sticking to a healthy, balanced diet, losing weight if you're overweight and taking regular exercise will reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes or help you manage the condition better and prevent further damage if you've been diagnosed with the condition.

High blood pressure

Around 80% of people with type 2 diabetes have high blood pressure, too. Hypertension damages and constricts blood vessels in the brain, making it a contributing factor in vascular dementia.

The Lancet review backs up a similar review conducted last year by the American Heart Association that shows a link between high blood pressure in middle age and dementia. Getting your blood pressure down to a healthy level will therefore help protect your mind as well as your heart.

Lower your risk: if your blood pressure is consistently above 140/90mmHg (or 135/85mmHg at home), you'll need to make lifestyle changes to get it back down to a healthy level.  These include cutting down on salt, losing weight, exercising regularly, stopping smoking and drinking less caffeine.

High total cholesterol levels

At least 25 peer-reviewed studies have linked high total cholesterol in middle age with an increased risk of developing dementia.

The relationship between high cholesterol levels in mid-life and dementia is poorly understood and researchers are still trying to work out exactly how high cholesterol affects the brain to precipitate the condition.

Lower your risk: if you're aged between 40 and 74, remember you can get your cholesterol checked, as well as high blood pressure and so on as part of your free NHS Health Check. If your total cholesterol level exceeds 5mmol/L, your doctor will probably advise you to cut down on saturated fat, increase the fibre in your diet, maintain a healthy weight and exercise more, and may recommend you take statins.


Studies have shown that people who are obese, particularly in middle age, are more at risk of developing dementia later on in life, mainly because they are far more likely to have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high total cholesterol.

Carrying all that extra weight puts a huge strain on the cardiovascular system to boot, including the blood vessels in the brain, making them more prone to damage.

Lower your risk: If your body mass index (BMI) is over 30 and you have a waist-to-height ratio of more than 0.57, you can discuss the different weight loss options with your doctor. These include healthy eating and exercise – your GP may even offer exercise on prescription and free training sessions – all the way up to the anti-obesity drug orlistat and bariatric surgery.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.