Nfld. & Labrador

New research shows link between heart troubles and dementia

A new study released by the Heart and Stroke foundation shows a link between heart conditions and the risk of developing dementia.

Study shows stronger connection between heart and brain than previously thought

Dr. Michelle Ploughman says the recent study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation is an eye-opener. (CBC)

A new study by the Heart and Stroke foundation shows a link between heart conditions and the risk of possibly developing dementia.

Dr. Michelle Ploughman, a researcher with the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University specializing in neuroplasticity rehabilitation and brain recovery, said it's a wake-up call for people in this province who are at high risk for heart disease.

"It robs you of your ability to interact with your family," she said of the condition, known as vascular cognitive impairment. "To live this rich life, to have telephone conversations, to care for your banking, care for your family, drive, do the things that you take for granted every day." 

You have a chance to influence your aging right now- Dr. Michelle Ploughman

Ploughman said it's especially concerning for people with something like heart failure, valve problems, atrial fibrillation or high blood pressure.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation conducted a comprehensive analysis of 2.6 million hospitalizations in Canada between 2007 and 2017. 

It shows a deeper link between cardiovascular disease and the increased risk of vascular cognitive impairment than was previously understood. It can possibly lead to dementia. 

Ploughman said high-risk lifestyle choices can accumulate, and the more of them you have, the more you are "setting yourself up for dementia."

"You have a chance to influence your aging right now," she said. "So if you think about the major risk factors for vascular cognitive impairment — inactivity, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure — all those factors influence your story down the road. I think that we have an opportunity in our youth, when we're young and are enjoying ourselves, to try to take those factors and knock them down, one by one."

Scary news

Natasha Pinsent, a 44-year-old woman from St. John's who had a heart attack two years ago, found the report unsettling.

"I'm very scared," she said. "I'm scared it could lead to something as severe as dementia. We've had that in my family."

Natasha Pinsent suffered a heart attack in 2016. (Natasha Pinsent/Facebook)

Pinsent said the report, for her, reinforced the need to take better care of herself. 

"I am pretty active but in reading this report I definitely will be eating healthier, getting more and more active," she said. "I kind of let that slide a little bit, you know? I would definitely urge people to consider [stopping] smoking, take your health more seriously because, you know, this is a pretty significant finding."

Pinsent hopes the study leads to better support systems for people recovering from vascular disease, more awareness, and improved treatments and diagnoses in the health system. 

Other findings from the research

The study also found people who were previously thought to have one vascular condition are likely to develop — or already have — multiple conditions, many without knowing it until they cause irreparable harm. More than 1 million of those people examined in the 2007 to 2017 study were readmitted during that time frame to be treated for a second condition.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says there is now a clearer understanding of the link between heart and brain conditions. (CBC)

One of the most startling examples is cognitive impairment, which can lead to dementia in its most severe form.

Many of these related conditions are not being treated until they become health crises, the report said, because the heart and brain are connected by a vascular system but not necessarily noticed within the health system. Overlooking the connection can cause delays in diagnosing and preventing secondary illnesses, which compounds the problems.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation is raising awareness and calling on health providers and system leaders to work together to create a streamlined, patient-centred health system model.

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