A Healthy Heart to Keep Your Wits

Diabetes and cardiovascular disease increase risk of cognitive decline

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Diabetes has been linked to dementia. But diabetes alone may not be the cause of this type of mental decline. Heart disease risk factors may be the real driver behind cognitive impairment.

Various research studies have said brain functions slow for many people with diabetes. According to new research, diabetes alone is not to blame.

Calcified plaque and other cardiovascular problems may be the prime culprits in mental decline among diabetes patients.

"A healthy heart may keep your mind sharp."

Christina Hugenschmidt, PhD, an instructor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and other investigators examined relationships between cognitive function, vascular calcified plaque and other major diabetes risk factors associated with cognition.

Dr. Hugenschmidt and her team identified 516 participants from the Diabetes Heart Study (DHS) who had cardiovascular disease measures. Four hundred and twenty-two of those were affected by type 2 diabetes. The DHS investigated CVD in siblings with a high incidence and prevalence of type 2 diabetes, where extensive measurements of CVD risk factors were obtained during exams from 1998 to 2006.

The patients were put through a battery of cognitive tests that looked at different kinds of thinking. Scientists evaluated patient memory and processing speed, as well as executive function. Executive function is a set of mental skills that includes processes like managing time and attention, planning and organization.

“Those with diabetes and subclinical cardiovascular disease had a higher risk of cognitive dysfunction," said Dr. Hugenschmidt. The results suggest that cardiovascular disease is playing a role in cognition problems before it is clinically apparent in patients.

Cardiovascular disease explains a lot of the cognitive problems that people with diabetes experience, Hugenschmidt said. "One possibility is that your brain requires a really steady blood flow and it's possible that the cardiovascular disease that accompanies diabetes might be the main driver behind the cognitive deficits that we see."

Sarah Samaan, MD, cardiologist and physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, told dailyRx News, “This is one of the latest in a growing number of studies showing a strong connection between brain health and heart health."

"Most cases of adult onset diabetes are preventable with simple choices including exercising 2.5 hours weekly and eating a heart smart diet."

Samaan added, "Although it may be difficult to face, you truly are what you eat and what you do. Avoid fast food and processed foods, stay away from tobacco, and keep your weight in a healthy range and not only will you lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease, you'll also help to keep your mind sharp for years to come.”

Dr. Hugenschmidt said the takeaway for clinicians is to take cardiovascular disease risk factors into consideration when they're treating patients with type 2 diabetes patients because, even at borderline clinical levels, it might have long-term implications for peoples' mental and cognitive health.

The research appeared online ahead of print in June in the Journal of Diabetes and Its Complications.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 8, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013