Dementia, a decline in cognitive function, comes in different forms. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, but a close second is a condition called vascular dementia, a type of cognitive decline due to reduced blood flow to the brain. Both forms of dementia may be progressive and eventually lead to severe cognitive problems and memory loss.
Genetics play a role in who develops dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, but studies also show that leading a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease even in people at high risk due to genetics. In fact, you can lower your risk of developing dementia by ensuring that two parameters stay in the normal range: blood pressure and blood sugar. Here’s why.
Blood Pressure as a Risk Factor for Dementia
Research shows that elevated blood pressure, particularly during middle age, is linked with cognitive decline later in life. Not only does high blood pressure increase the risk of vascular dementia by damaging blood vessels in the brain, but it may also boost the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia. In addition, uncontrolled high blood pressure raises the risk of stroke, another major cause of cognitive impairment.
Although one study found that strictly controlling blood pressure didn’t reduce the risk of developing full-blown dementia, it did lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment, a less pronounced form of cognitive impairment. In fact, tight blood pressure control lessened the risk of mild cognitive impairment by 19%.
Although mild cognitive impairment isn’t true dementia, it is a risk factor for eventually developing the more serious form of cognitive impairment and memory loss. Plus, mild cognitive impairment can impair a person’s quality of life too.
Another way high blood pressure may contribute to dementia, especially vascular dementia, is by increasing the formation of small brain infarcts, areas of dead tissue due to decreased blood flow to the brain. In one study of 1,300 people, almost half of individuals with high blood pressure had at least one infarct in their brain when they looked at their brains upon autopsy. Dead brain tissue can’t be restored so you want to limit the amount you lose due to poor blood flow to the brain. One way to do that is to control your blood pressure.
In addition, controlling your blood pressure lowers the risk of other health problems, including heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease. The guidelines for what optimal blood pressure is has changed. Now, readings higher than 120 over 80 are classified as pre-hypertension. So, you want to keep your blood pressure below this level.
How should you monitor it? The best approach is to check your blood pressure at home several times per week in the morning and the evening and record the values. Checking it only when you visit your physician isn’t ideal as it doesn’t tell you how your blood pressure readings vary at different times of the day.
Blood Sugar as a Dementia Risk Factor
How’s your fasting blood sugar? It’s a number we all should know, as diabetes and pre-diabetes are at an epidemic level. In fact, one-third of all adults have pre-diabetes and many aren’t aware of it. If you have pre-diabetes, defined as a fasting blood sugar above 100 and below 121. Once you have a fasting blood sugar of 120 or above, health care professionals will diagnose you with type 2 diabetes. Since pre-diabetes doesn’t cause symptoms, many people are unaware that they have it.
Research links diabetes with a higher risk of developing dementia and mild cognitive impairment. In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine established a link between higher blood glucose levels and a greater risk of dementia even in people without diabetes. Some experts even refer to Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes due to its link with insulin resistance.
In addition, elevated blood sugars increase the formation of advanced-glycation end products (AGE), misshapen compounds that form when glucose reacts with proteins. These compounds damage the inner walls of blood vessels, including ones in the brain. Advanced-glycation end products are also involved in premature aging. That’s why it’s so important that we keep our blood sugar controlled!
Know what your fasting blood sugar is, and if you’re in the pre-diabetic or diabetic range, make the lifestyle changes needed to bring your blood sugar down. The most important thing you can do to bring high blood glucose readings down if you’re overweight or obese is to lose weight. Exercise is also beneficial since it improves insulin sensitivity and how cells handle glucose. Of course, skip the processed carbs and added sugar!
Lower Your Risk of Dementia
There’s no sure-fire way to prevent dementia, but research shows that lifestyle habits make a difference even in those who are genetically at high risk. A recent study followed almost 200,000 older British individuals at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. It showed that those who adopted healthy lifestyle habits lowered their risk of developing the disease even when they carried genes that placed them at high risk. Genes aren’t destiny, thanks to the phenomenon of epigenetics. Lifestyle can turn genes on and off and potentially change health outcomes. In the study, eating a healthy diet, drinking only moderate amounts of alcohol, meeting the recommended guidelines for exercise, and not smoking was associated with a lower risk. In fact, a healthy lifestyle cut the risk by 35% in those at greatest risk.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why it’s so important to know what your blood pressure and fasting blood sugar are. Leading a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and smart dietary choices will help with blood pressure and blood sugar control. Keeping your lifestyle clean is also linked with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Take advantage of what you can control – your lifestyle.
· WebMD.com. “Can Strict BP Control Lower Your Dementia Risk?”
· The New England Journal of Medicine. “Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia”
· Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prevalence of Prediabetes”
· Mayo Clinic. “Diabetes and Alzheimer’s linked”
· WebMD.com. “Healthy Living Counteracts Alzheimer’s Genetic Risk”
· Medical News Today. “High Blood Pressure May Increase Dementia Risk”