Harvard Heart Letter

Heart disease and brain health: Looking at the links

Poor blood flow in the brain can chip away at thinking skills.

heart disease and brain health
Image: RootsBeforeBranches/Thinkstock

Just like in the rest of your body, advancing years can take a toll on your brain function. Much of this slowing down is predictable and can be chalked up to normal aging. However, when thinking skills become increasingly fuzzy and forgetfulness gets to be a way of life, an early form of dementia known as mild cognitive impairment may be setting in (see "Normal aging vs. mild cognitive impairment").

Often, the first reaction is to attribute these changes to the beginning of Alzheimer's disease. But blood flow problems may be to blame, as well. "An estimated one-third of all cases of dementia, including those identified as Alzheimer's, can be attributed to vascular factors," says Dr. Albert Hofman, chair of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Heart and brain

Vascular—blood vessel—problems include atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries) and arteriosclerosis (the stiffening of arteries with age). Both are well-known contributors to heart disease. These same processes can also damage brain function by interfering with the steady supply of oxygen-rich blood that nourishes brain cells.

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