A new study conducted by the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC) in Madrid sheds light on the connection between cardiovascular disease and dementia in the elderly population.
This research highlights a critical gap in long-term studies examining how atherosclerosis and its associated risk factors impact brain health, particularly starting in middle age.
The study’s findings underscore the significance of managing conventional cardiovascular risk factors, including hypertension, cholesterol levels, diabetes, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
These factors play a pivotal role not only in preserving cardiovascular health but also in averting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The study conducted by CNIC and published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity underscores that beyond its primary role as a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis and its related risk factors are also implicated in the cerebral changes observed in Alzheimer’s disease, the most prevalent form of dementia.
Dr Valentin Fuster, the General Director of CNIC and one of the study’s authors, emphasises the significance of these new findings.
The new findings present the potential to address a modifiable condition, cardiovascular disease, as a means of preventing the onset of a disease for which there is currently no curative treatment, dementia.
“The sooner we act to control cardiovascular risk factors, the better it is for our brain health,” said Dr Fuster.
“Everybody knows that a healthy lifestyle and controlling cardiovascular risk factors are important for preventing a heart attack,” continued Dr Fuster.
“Nevertheless, the additional information linking the same risk factors to a decline in brain health could further increase awareness of the need to acquire healthy habits from the earliest life stages.”
In 2021, CNIC scientists discovered that the presence of cardiovascular risk factors and subclinical (presymptomatic) atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries (the arteries that supply the brain) was associated with lower glucose metabolism in the brains of apparently healthy 50-year-old participants in the PESA-CNIC-Santander study.
Glucose metabolism in the brain is considered an indicator of brain health.
The PESA-CNIC-Santander study, directed by Dr Fuster, is a prospective study that includes more than 4,000 asymptomatic middle-aged participants who have been exhaustively assessed for the presence and progression of subclinical atherosclerosis since 2010.
Dr Fuster’s team, led by Drs. Marta Cortés Canteli and Juan Domingo Gispert, have continued to monitor the cerebral health of these participants over five years.
Their research shows that individuals who maintained a high cardiovascular risk throughout this period had a more pronounced reduction in cerebral glucose metabolism, detected using imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET).
“In participants with a sustained high cardiovascular risk, the decline in cerebral metabolism was three times greater than in participants who maintained a low cardiovascular risk,” commented Catarina Tristão-Pereira, first author of the study and INPhINIT fellow.
Glucose is the main energy source for neurons and other brain cells. “If there is a sustained decline in cerebral glucose consumption over several years, this may limit the brain’s ability to withstand neurodegenerative or cerebrovascular diseases in the future,” explained Dr Gispert, an expert in neuroimaging at the CNIC and Barcelonaβeta Research Centre.
Through a collaboration with Drs Henrik Zetterberg and Kaj Blennow, world experts in the identification of new blood biomarkers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, the CNIC team discovered that the individuals showing this metabolic decline already show signs of neuronal injury.
“This is a particularly important finding because neuronal death is irreversible,” said Dr Cortes Canteli, a neuroscientist at the CNIC and a Miguel Servet fellow at the Fundación Jiménez Díaz Health Research Institute.
The CNIC team also discovered that the progression of subclinical atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries over five years is linked to a metabolic decline in brain regions vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease, in addition to the effect of cardiovascular risk factors.
“These results provide yet another demonstration that the detection of subclinical atherosclerosis with imaging techniques provides highly relevant information,” said Dr Fuster, who is the principal investigator of the PESA study.
“The interaction between the brain and the heart is a fascinating topic, and with this study, we have seen that this relationship begins much earlier than was thought.”
The scientists conclude that in light of these results, “carotid screening has great potential to identify individuals at risk of cerebral alterations and cognitive decline in the future.”
In the published article they write, “This work could have important implications for clinical practice since it supports the implementation of primary cardiovascular prevention strategies early in life as a valuable approach for a healthy cerebral longevity.”
“Although we still don’t know what impact this decline in cerebral metabolism has on cognitive function, the detection of neuronal injury in these individuals shows that the earlier we start to control cardiovascular risk factors, the better it will be for our brain,” concluded Dr Cortes Canteli.