Conventional medicine has made some amazing strides in treating heart disease – bypass surgery, angioplasty and all kinds of wonder drugs have succeeded in reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke.

I think this has led quite a few people to be complacent about heart disease. Why worry? The doctor has something to fix you up. Meanwhile, stay on the couch, have another donut.

The problem with this optimistic outlook is that now we know if your circulatory system is unhealthy, your risk of dementia is much higher. And conventional medicine has no treatments for that. . .

Now some new studies put specific numbers to the risk you’re taking. . .

Back in 2010 the American Heart Association developed Life’s Simple 7. It consists of health factors and lifestyle choices that help prevent heart disease and stroke. If you follow a strategy to optimize all seven, you’ll greatly reduce the risk of future cardiovascular events.

It makes sense that if Life’s Simple 7 is good for the heart, then it benefits the brain too. But exactly how much do these wise choices reduce the risk of dementia? That’s what some researchers set out to find. . .

Each Factor Equally Important

According to the Life’s Simple 7 strategy, the lowest risk of heart disease and stroke is achieved by:

  • a BMI of less than 25
  • blood pressure below 120/80
  • total cholesterol of less than 200
  • fasting blood glucose below 100
  • not smoking
  • exercising at a moderate level for at least 150 minutes a week
  • eating a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables at least 3 times a day and fish twice week

Since the heart and blood vessels supply blood to the brain, problems with the vascular system are likely to affect brain health. Numerous studies confirm this is true.

For instance, a large, long-term population study published last year in JAMA Neurology concluded that “Midlife vascular risk factors are associated with increased risk of dementia…”

The study covered five of the risk factors, but no study looked into the combined effect of all seven factors on cognitive aging and dementia in older people – until now.

The latest study, published in JAMA, was carried out by a research group from France. They enrolled 6,626 people aged 65 or older from three French cities. None had any history of heart disease or dementia at the start of the trial.

Over the next 8½ years 745 developed dementia. The worst achievers on the seven  metrics – those who had good scores on only two factors or less — had a dementia incidence of 12.7 percent, compared to 10.7 percent for those with three or four factors, and 7.9 percent for those who scored well on at least five of the seven factors.

Those numbers work out to a roughly 38% decrease in dementia risk among the people who managed to score five or better.

Each of the measures the volunteers successfully reached lowered the risk of dementia by 10 percent compared to the worst performers. On average, the people with not even one of the seven factors at an optimal level went downhill twice as fast as the people who had perfect scores on all seven.

“It’s Never Too Late”

According to lead author Cécilia Samieri, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bordeaux, “What’s important here is that combining optimal cardiovascular metrics can reduce your risk of dementia. You don’t have to be perfect, but each time you add a factor, you reduce your risk.”

Since only seniors made up the study, with an average age of 73, and the effect was strong, she added, “It’s never too late” to get these risk factors under control.

This was backed up by JAMA’s editors, who wrote, “Available evidence indicates that to achieve a lifetime of robust brain health, free of dementia, it is never too early or too late to strive for attainment of ideal cardiovascular health.”

Commenting on the study, Dr. Douglas Brown, chief policy officer at the Alzheimer’s Society UK, said, “We now know that what is good for the heart is good for the head, and this research backs that up, showing that taking care of your cardiovascular health later in life may help slow cognitive decline and reduce your risk of getting dementia.”

It’s a message we should all heed.