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Poor heart health linked to cognitive impairment

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People who suffer from poor cardiovascular health are more likely to develop learning and memory problems than those who don't have serious cardiovascular challenges, according to a new study.

Researchers found that among the people in the study with the worst cardiovascular health scores, 4.6 percent had some sort of cognitive impairment, whereas 2.7 percent of people with intermediate cardiovascular health, and 2.6 percent of people whose cardiovascular health had impairment. Tests of learning and memory were used to determine whether people developed cognitive impairment over the course of the study.

Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels, for better cognitive function, study author Evan L. Thacker, an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University's Department of Health Science in Provo, Utah, said in a statement.

This is an encouraging message, because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target for many individuals than ideal cardiovascular health, Thacker said. [Top 10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

The new findings come from data on nearly 18,000 people ages 45 and older who were taking part in an ongoing study called Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS), which examines the cardiovascular health of study participants. Just over half of the people in the REGARDS study live in the so-called "stroke belt" states in the southeast United States.

For the current study, the researchers looked at participants whose cognitive function was considered normal, and who had never had a stroke. The researchers evaluated the participants' cognitive function four years later, testing the learning of new words, memory and fluency.

The researchers observed that differences in cognitive ability among those tested were linked with cardiovascular health, regardless of race, gender, pre-existing cardiovascular conditions or where the people lived.

The underlying causes of the link between cardiovascular health and cognitive function are unclear. However, undetected, "subclinical" strokes may also play a role, Thacker said. Subclinical strokes, or silent strokes, are strokes that do not have symptoms that are typical of strokes, and therefore patients are unaware that they have had a subclinical stroke. Such strokes, however, do damage the brain.

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