We may not connect poor heart health to poor brain health, but research shows that several risk factors for cardiovascular health can also affect our cognitive development. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has revealed that people with poor cardiovascular health are at a higher risk to impaired cognitive development such as learning and memory problems compared to people with sufficient cardiovascular health.

"Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better cognitive function," Dr. Evan L. Thacker, an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University Department of Health Science, in Provo, Utah, said in a statement. "This is an encouraging message because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target for many individuals than ideal cardiovascular health."

Thacker and his colleagues gathered data using the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study, which included 17,761 people over the age of 45 with normal cognitive function and no history of a stroke at the beginning of the study. People participating in the REGARDS included 42 percent blacks, 58 percent whites, 55 percent women, and 58 percent of individuals living across the “stroke belt” states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

The research team determined the cardiovascular health status of individuals participating in the REGARDS study using the American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 score, a system measuring the benefits of adjustable lifestyle changes and cardiovascular risk factors including smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting glucose. Researchers also accounted for differences in age, sex, race, and education.

Each of these seven heart health risk factors of the Simple 7 are classified as poor, intermediate, or ideal. Cognitive function was assessed by measuring verbal learning, memory, and fluency. Verbal learning was evaluated through a three-trial, 10-item word list. Verbal memory was evaluated through free recall of the ten-item list that followed a brief delay filled with non-cognitive questions. Verbal fluency was evaluated by asking each participant to name as many animals as they could in 60 seconds.

Results of the study identified impaired cognitive development in 4.6 percent of participants with the lowest cardiovascular health scores, 2.7 percent with intermediate heart health scores, and 2.6 percent of people with the highest cardiovascular health scores. Men, people with higher education, higher income, and no signs of cardiovascular disease were also more likely to record a higher heart health score.

Source: Thacker E, Gillett S, Wadley V, et al. The American Heart Association Life's Simple 7 and Incident Cognitive Impairment: The Reasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2014.