Understanding and preventing dementia is something in which I have a strong interest since I’ve observed its enormous impact on patients and their families. Dementia is defined as cognitive impairment severe enough to interfere with daily life. There are multiple causes of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and the accumulated effects of strokes called vascular dementia.
A recent study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia assessed the connection between having an elevated heart rate and dementia. Your heart rate or pulse is how many times per minute your heart contracts and pushes out blood to the rest of your body. Your pulse normally goes up with physical activity or stress as your bodies senses it needs more blood with oxygen. A resting pulse is your pulse when you aren’t engaged in physical activity. This study performed in Stockholm observed 2,147 individuals 60 years old and older over a period of up to 12 years. It found that individuals with a resting heart rate of 80 beats per minute or higher on average had a 55% higher risk of dementia than those with a heart rate of 60-69 beats per minute. Individuals with higher resting heart rates were older, less educated, and more likely to be smokers and sedentary and to have hypertension. Since these are risk factors for dementia they could explain much of the association observed between having a higher resting pulse and dementia.
This study was observational so that it cannot establish a causal relationship between an elevated pulse and the risk of developing dementia. Nonetheless, here are my takeaways: First, an elevated pulse can be a marker of poor cardiovascular health. In a well-functioning cardiovascular system, the heart doesn’t have to beat as often to supply the body with its need for oxygenated blood. So this study fits with other studies suggesting poor cardiovascular health increases the risk of dementia. This makes sense since our brain, like all other organs in our body needs good blood flow to function.
A second takeaway from this study is the impact of emotional stress on brain health. A higher resting pulse might mean your fight or flight response called the sympathetic nervous system is more often activated. This can be sign of emotional stress. There is evidence suggesting chronically elevated stress levels can increase the risk of dementia. One possible mechanism for this link is the effects of elevated levels of the hormone cortisol that is released with stress. High cortisol levels may have an adverse effect on the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that plays an important role with learning and memory.
Here are my takeaways from this study. To protect your brain health:
1) Take steps to promote your cardiovascular health. Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Eat a Mediterranean style diet. Control cardiovascular disease risk factors such as elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
2) Take steps to control emotional stress. Make time to relax and have fun. Prioritize enriching time with friends and family. Consider stress-reducing activities such as yoga or meditation. Give yourself a chance for 8 hours of sleep every night. Avoid committing to more than you can reasonably handle.
Here is a link to the study: