What's Good for the Heart Is Good for the Brain
Dr. DeCarli's research suggests that older people without vascular risk factors or evidence of vascular brain injury perform just like young people on cognitive tests. "If we could control vascular risk factors, maybe our brains could stay young and we wouldn't have to experience the memory loss that is typical of aging," Dr. DeCarli suggested. "We know that Alzheimer's disease, which 10 or 20 years ago was thought of as senility and a part of normal aging, is a pathological process. We need to take the next step and say the same is true of vascular disease." With that approach, we may prevent a lot of late life cognitive impairment if we prevent vascular disease from accumulating. "We have medications that may turn back some of the vascular injury, but isn't it better to prevent that injury in the first place?" DeCarli says, proposing that exercise and lifestyle changes that reduce heart disease may prevent Alzheimer's disease as well.
"When we think about high blood pressure, when we think about diabetes, when we think about high cholesterol, we usually think about heart attacks," he notes. Lowering cholesterol is important for the heart, but it may be just as important for the brain, maybe even more important, according to DeCarli. Prevention is key. "Some heart damage can be repaired surgically, but not brain damage. A memory lost is never recovered."
As the doctor indicated, we have prevention and treatment approaches for vascular disease, but people don't always follow them, or they begin too late. Half of people diagnosed with high blood pressure don't take their medications regularly. Many people who have had a stroke have not seen a doctor in years. There is danger here, because the longer vascular disease goes untreated, the more it damages the whole body, including the brain.
The damage often begins when people are in their thirties and forties. The early changes that increase the risk of vascular disease have few or no symptoms: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and problems with insulin control, so it often goes undetected in the early stage unless a person has regular checkups and blood tests.
"People can make changes in exercise, diet, blood pressure, smoking, and cholesterol levels," Dr. DeCarli explained. "They can see their doctors regularly to check blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol and to get conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes diagnosed early. They can control obesity and carefully manage their diabetes. All these steps will protect the blood vessels so they continue to deliver blood to the brain. If we take care of our bodies now, he suggests, our bodies might take care of our brains later.
Compared to 50 years ago, many more people can live vigorous, productive lives well into their eighties if they take care of themselves. Dr. DeCarli believes that people may be able to reach the age of 80 with no memory problems, if they've done everything they can to control their vascular risk factors. "I dream that the memory loss of old age will one day be history."
Previous: The Problem of Cholesterol
Excerpted from THE ALZHEIMER'S PROJECT: MOMENTUM IN SCIENCE, published by Public Affairs, www.publicaffairsbooks.com.
In This Section
- Vascular Disease
- Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
- Connecting Alzheimer's Disease to Vascular Disease
- Vascular Injury
- Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
- The Problem of Cholesterol
- What's Good for the Heart is Good for the Brain
- Atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's Disease
- Associating Alzheimer's Disease with Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
- Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
- Insulin in the Brain
Momentum in Science: The Supplementary Series
- Understanding and Attacking Alzheimer's 12 min
- How Far We Have Come in Alzheimer's Research 15 min
- Identifying Mild Cognitive Impairment 20 min
- The Role of Genetics in Alzheimer's 12 min
- Advances in Brain Imaging 11 min
- Looking Into the Future of Alzheimer's 6 min
- The Connection Between Insulin and Alzheimer's 21 min
- Inflammation, the Immune System, and Alzheimer's 29 min
- The Benefit of Diet and Exercise in Alzheimer's 16 min
- Cognitive Reserve: What the Religious Orders Study is Revealing about Alzheimer's 20 min
- Searching for an Alzheimer's Cure: The Story of Flurizan 30 min
- The Pulse of Drug Development 15 min
- The DeMoe Family: Early-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 25 min
- The Nanney/Felts Family: Late-Onset Alzheimer's Genetics 20 min
- The Quest for Biomarkers 17 min
Video: Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer's Disease
This 4-minute captioned video shows the progression of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.
Inside the Brain: An Interactive Tour
The Brain Tour explains how the brain works and how Alzheimer's affects it.
Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery
This book explains what AD is, describes the main areas in which researchers are working, and highlights new approaches for helping families and friends care for people with AD.
- About The Scientists
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- Rapid advances in our knowledge about AD have led to the development of promising new drugs and treatment strategies. However, before these new strategies can be used in clinical practice, they must be shown to work in people. Advances in prevention and treatment are only possible thanks to volunteers who participate in clinical trials.
- Among those touched by Alzheimer's (excluding self), nearly one-third provide support as a friend or relative, another 3% provide support as a healthcare professional, and the remaining two-thirds provide no support to the person suffering from Alzheimer's. When support is provided, it most often entails emotional support, followed by care-giving support. While small in comparison, more than one person in ten is providing financial support. Read more.