Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are extremely difficult to predict. Accordingly, medical researchers are continually looking for new ways of determining a person’s risk for developing such a condition. Ideally, they hope to identify risk factors that can be managed with new or existing therapies, thereby reducing the likelihood of dementia arising as a result of their effects. A new study seems to have detected this type of risk factor. Hardening of the arteries, which is a treatable condition, appears to be associated with a significantly increased likelihood of developing dementia.
The Arteries and Human Health
Arteries are blood vessels that typically carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body. However, there are a couple of exceptions in which arteries carry oxygen-depleted blood instead (the pulmonary and arterial arteries). In contrast to veins, which normally carry oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart, arteries are usually more muscular and are placed deeper within the body. Given their vital role in human health, arterial dysfunction is taken very seriously in the medical community.
The stiffening of arteries can occur as a natural effect of aging or as the result of arteriosclerosis (a disease that is defined by the thickening and hardening of arteries). As arteries become stiffer, the blood pumped through them from the heart is significantly slowed down and has a harder time reaching the rest of the body. The heart must work harder to compensate for the stiffening, which increases the risk of a cardiovascular event like a stroke or heart attack. In many cases, arterial stiffening can be managed with blood pressure medications and lifestyle changes.
Aortic Stiffness and Dementia
A new investigation from the University of Pittsburgh built upon existing evidence that had previously linked cardiovascular health and dementia. To better understand this connection, researchers focused on the impact of arterial stiffening on dementia rates, as opposed to studying cardiovascular health in general. Specifically, they were interested in stiffening of the aorta, the largest artery in the body.
This study utilized 15 years of data that was originally collected as part of an investigation into the relationship between cardiovascular health and cognitive impairments in 358 older adults (average age of 78 years). All participants (356 in total) were dementia-free at the beginning of the trial, and their progress was tracked for the remainder of the study. Throughout the investigation, the speed of blood pulsing through their aorta was also measured regularly. This allowed present-day researchers to explore the relationship between aortic stiffness and dementia using new analytic methods.
New Findings and Opportunities
As expected, the study showed that a slowed blood pulse velocity in the aorta was associated with a significantly higher risk of developing dementia. However, the researchers were perhaps most excited to find that the relationship remained significant even when there was no presence of subclinical brain damage. This is important because they originally believed that aortic stiffness was linked to dementia by causing subclinical brain damage, which is extremely difficult to detect and treat. If aortic stiffness is related to dementia by some other mechanism, which appears to be the case, then it may be possible to prevent and/or treat dementia by reducing the stiffness with medications and lifestyle changes.