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Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain
Researchers from Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study have associated obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels during childhood, with declining brain function during later stages of life.

A novel research, published recently in the American Heart Association’s flagship journal Circulation, has recently discovered that addressing weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol during childhood may help to preserve brain function later in life. It is the first study to analyse the effects of accumulating cardiovascular (CV) risk factors since youth on depreciating cognitive power in later years.

Ageing invites many complications, one of which is losing neurological function. In fact, 1 in 5 people over the age of 60 is said to experience mild loss of brain function at the very least. While cognitive deficits are multi-factorial, cardiovascular risk factors are among the most pronounced contributors. High blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity and poor diet, are all heavily associated with age-related cognitive decline.

These CV factors, especially when accumulated since early years, have been found to be correlated to the development of mid-life cognitive diseases. As such, it is crucial to establish the connection between CV risks and the emergence of neurological diseases, or better yet provide a definitive answer as to how CV risks threaten our cognitive health.

In response to this question, researchers of Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study performed a 31-year-long observational study, which involved tracking cardiovascular risk factor profiles of participants from childhood to adulthood, in order to analyse how CV factors contributed to their cognitive health.

The nation-wide, longitudinal study was conducted in Finland, and the baseline clinical test was first conducted in 1980, involving an estimate of 3,600 Caucasian children between the ages of 3-18. These tests were mainly focused to assess participants’ cardiovascular health.

31 years later, in 2011, more than 2000 of the participants, now between ages 34 and 49, were subjected to a digitalised cognitive function test to examine their brain health. 4 cognitive domains were taken into consideration: episodic memory and associative learning, short-term working memory, reaction and movement time, and visual processing and sustained attention.

“We can use these results to turn the focus of brain health from old age and midlife to people in younger age groups,” explained by the study’s first author Juuso O. Hakala, M.D., a Ph.D. student at the Research Centre of Applied and Prevention Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Turku, in Turku, Finland. “Our results show active monitoring and prevention of heart disease and stroke risk factors, beginning from early childhood, can also matter greatly when it comes to brain health. Children who have adverse cardiovascular risk factors might benefit from early intervention and lifestyle modifications.”

The findings of their investigation suggested that consistently high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and childhood obesity carried over through adulthood were associated with defective memory and associative learning, poor visual processing, lower attention span, slow reaction and movement time.

However, it is worthwhile noting that results were gathered from observational data and conclusions were drawn based on correlative associations of CV risk and cognitive performance, rather than definite causative links. Therefore, the question of whether the age at which CV risk factors develop are particularly important to mid-life brain health, still remains answered. The resulting conclusion may also not be generalisable to all races or ethnic groups. Hence, further investigation is needed to address these limitations.

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