Older men and women with a cluster of heart disease risk factors have a greater chance of developing subtle problems in thinking and memory that could put them at risk for Alzheimer's disease, a report released today says.
About 47 million Americans have metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that harm the heart but also might be bad for the brain. The syndrome is partly genetic but can be made worse by inactivity and obesity, especially a fat stomach, says researcher Kristine Yaffe of the University of California-San Francisco.
But the findings also hold out the hope that lifestyle changes, such as holding the line on weight, might reduce that risk, says Sam Gandy, a neurologist at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and a spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association.
Yaffe and her colleagues studied 1,016 older men and women who had metabolic syndrome, which includes risk factors such as fat around the waist, high blood pressure, difficulty processing blood sugar, and low levels of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. These patients and the 1,616 people without the syndrome had no sign of thinking problems at the study's start. Their average age was 74.
After four years, the team found that people with the syndrome had a 20% risk of a performance drop on cognitive tests. Such problems can lead to Alzheimer's disease over time, Yaffe says.
Men and women who had chronic inflammation fared even worse: They had a 66% greater risk of cognitive problems. The team describes its findings in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.
''Metabolic syndrome is probably bad for the brain, but there's some relationship with inflammation that's especially bad,'' Yaffe says.
That finding supports the theory that chronic inflammation, perhaps triggered by bad habits like a high-fat diet, might contribute to many diseases, including Alzheimer's, says David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
There's no proof yet that lifestyle changes, such as going for a walk instead of watching TV, can ward off Alzheimer's. But these risk factors can trigger heart attacks and strokes, Knopman says. ''There are lots of good reasons to treat these risk factors now.''
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