Researchers have found an association between healthier hearts and better cognitive abilities, like faster reaction times and superior performance on logic problems. It's been thought that dysfunction in the heart or heart disease may be linked to problems in the brain, and heart disease risk factors are known to be associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. This study may be the first to investigate these connections in a very large group of healthy individuals; the researchers analyzed data from 32,000 people in the UK Biobank. The findings have been reported in the European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Imaging.
"Heart disease and dementia are important and growing public health problems, particularly in aging populations. We already knew that patients with heart disease were more likely to have dementia, and vice versa, but we've now shown that these links between heart and brain health are also present in healthy people. We demonstrated for the first time, in a very large group of healthy people, that individuals with healthier heart structure and function have better cognitive performance," said first study author Dr. Zahra Raisi-Estabragh, BHF Clinical Research Training Fellow at the Queen Mary University of London.
"With more research, these findings may help us to establish strategies for early prevention and reduce the burden of heart and brain disease in the future."
The health data in this study included MRI scans that illustrated heart anatomy and function, cognitive and reaction time tests. In individuals that were mostly healthy, those with the healthiest hearts had significantly better performances on cognitive tests.
When the scientists investigated other risk factors, like smoking, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, they found that these influences had an impact on heart and brain health. However, they didn't fully account for the association, suggesting that other factors are also at work.
Unfortunately, this study is only observational, so it's still difficult to draw solid conclusions about whether disease in the heart affects the brain or vice versa, which the researchers acknowledged. Lifestyle and environmental factors like diet and exercise habits may play roles. Accelerated aging in some people may also have an influence. However, other research has indicated that proteins that abnormally accumulate in the brain might also be accumulating in heart muscle, suggesting that there is a physiological basis for the connection too.