The Link Between Vascular Disease and Alzheimer’s

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerMay 24, 2017

A recent study completed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University suggests that people who are at high risk for vascular disease may also be at high risk for dementia. While previous studies have noted a strong correlation between the two conditions, this study claims that the more risk factors an individual has for vascular disease, the more at risk they are for dementia. 

Learn more about the study, preventing vascular disease, and the strong link between heart health and brain health.

What is Vascular Disease? 

The vascular system is primarily composed of the body’s network of blood vessels, including the arteries, veins and capillaries that are responsible for carrying blood to and from the heart. Vascular disease is defined as any condition that affects this system. The most common types of vascular disease are atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries, and peripheral artery disease, when arteries in the limbs narrow.

The most common risk factors for vascular disease include,

  • Family history
  • Illness or injury
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

A study published in 2009 followed participants for 30 years to conclude that risk of high cholesterol levels in midlife (a known risk for vascular disease) increased the risk of dementia in later years. However, until now, no study has evaluated if the risk factors of vascular dementia are directly correlated with the accumulation of beta-amyloid in the brain, a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

High Risk of Vascular Disease May Mean High Risk of Dementia

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University evaluated the correlation between vascular risk factors and dementia risk factors. Recently published in JAMA, the study analyzed brain images from 346 healthy adults who had participated in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC)-PET Amyloid Imaging Study. Participants were on average 52 years old when they enrolled in the study and were assessed for risk factors associated with vascular disease to include high cholesterol, smoking, high body mass index, high blood pressure and diabetes.

At the average age of 76, 25 years later, researchers used PET imaging to reveal the levels of beta-amyloid in the brains of participants.

In the study, researchers note, “The availability of imaging biomarkers for brain amyloid allows the study of individuals before the development of dementia and thereby allows consideration of the relative contributions of vascular disease and amyloid to cognition, as well as the contribution of vascular disease to amyloid deposition.”

Researchers found that participants who had at least two risk factors had significantly higher levels of beta-amyloid present in their brains. Moreover, the more risk factors a participant had, the more beta-amyloid was present in the brain. Researchers went on to say, “These data support the concept that midlife, but not late-life, exposure to these vascular risk factors is important for amyloid deposition. […] These findings are consistent with a role of vascular disease in the development of AD [Alzheimer’s disease].”

Have you seen a correlation between heart health and brain health in your loved one or family? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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