Heart Health Now Affects Mental Health Later

A new study finds that elevated heart risks in young adults are associated with lower cognitive function later on in life.

“It’s amazing that, as a young adult, mildly elevated heart risks seem to matter for your brain health later in life,” according to Kristine Yaffe, MD, a professor of psychiatry, neurology, epidemiology, and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco, and lead author of the study.

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“We’re not talking about old-age issues, but lifelong issues.”

In one of the first long-term studies to examine heart disease risk factors in the young, Yaffe and colleagues from the University of California-San Francisco found the increased heart risks that affected cognitive function tests in the future included scores higher than recommended by the American Heart Association in blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.

The research, which was part of the ongoing multi-center Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, lasted for 25 years, and followed 3,381 individuals between the ages of 18 and 30. Every 2 years to 5 years, investigators checked participants’ blood pressure, fasting blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. The study authors then assessed each individual’s cumulative cardiovascular health during this timeframe. At the end of the study period, participants took 3 tests to measure memory, thinking speed, and mental flexibility.

The authors found that cognitive function scores were lower—in the 40s and 50s—among those with high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels in their young adult lives. In what the researchers described as a “significant finding” for this age group, standardized test scores were between 0.06 and 0.30 points lower for every standard deviation increase in total exposure to these risk factors.

Investigators note that the study findings could have implications for Alzheimer’s disease, explaining that high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are main risk factors for atherosclerosis—the narrowing of the arteries due to plaque building up in the artery walls that lead to the brain and heart.

This narrowing is the most likely reason why heart health and cognitive function are linked, according to Yaffe.

While noting that additional research is needed to fully understand this connection, Yaffe described the study findings as “hopeful, because it tells us we could maybe make a dent in the risks of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by emphasizing the importance of controlling risk factors among younger people.”

—Mark McGraw


Yaffe K, Vittinghoff E, et al. Early Adult to Mid-Life Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Cognitive Function. Circulation. 2014.