Managing kids' cardiovascular risk factors helps protect their brains
Managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol in children may help protect brain function in later life, according to new research published in the American Heart Association's flagship journal Circulation.
This is the first study to highlight that cardiovascular risk factors accumulated from childhood through mid-life may influence poor cognitive performance at midlife.
Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or obesity from childhood through middle age were linked to poorer brain function by middle age. These cardiovascular risk factors were linked with low memory, learning, visual processing, attention span, and reaction and movement time. Strategies to prevent heart disease and stroke should begin in childhood to promote better brain health by middle age.
Previous research has indicated that nearly 1 in 5 people older than 60 have at least mild loss of brain function. Cognitive deficits are known to be linked with cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity and poor diet, as well as depression and low education level.
Many diseases that cause neurological deficits, such as Alzheimer's, have a long preclinical phase before noticeable symptoms begin, so finding links between childhood obesity and other cardiovascular risk factors is important for cognitive health. The researchers noted that there are currently no cures for major causes of dementia, so it is important to learn how early in life cardiovascular risk factors may affect the brain.
"We can use these results to turn the focus of brain health from old age and midlife to people in younger age groups," said Dr. Juuso O. Hakala, the study's first author. "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."
Among the findings: Obesity from childhood to adulthood was associated with lower visual information processing speed and maintaining attention; and having all three cardiovascular risk factors was linked to poorer memory and associative learning, worse visual processing, decreased attention span, and slower reaction and movement time.
These results are from observational findings, so more studies are needed to learn whether there are specific ages in childhood and/or adolescence when cardiovascular risk factors are particularly important to brain health in adulthood.
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