Listening to Your Heart AND Your Head: Is There a Connection between Heart Health and Alzheimer’s Disease?

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The adage “should you listen to your heart or to your head?” describes making decisions based on emotions (heart) versus logic (head). While the saying signifies two different sides to a decision-making process, the link between the heart and head may be more connected than you think when it comes to disease.

Heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease—a form of dementia—are seen together in the same person frequently. Is this just a coincidence or could there be a more direct connection between heart health and brain health? Both of these conditions typically occur in a similar population: people who are typically over 65 and have other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus. So it seems there could be a more direct relationship between heart and brain health. To answer the question of whether your heart health can affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease, let’s first focus a bit on our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Alzheimer’s disease has been studied for quite some time since its discovery in 1906. And while there is one reigning hypothesis about what causes Alzheimer’s disease (the accumulation of sticky proteins in your brain called amyloid-beta plaques), there has been a lot of discussion by researchers about how much of a role the small vessels in your brain play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Many scientists believe that if the small vessels don’t work how they should to carry the blood and nutrients around your brain, this dysfunction could make the progression of Alzheimer’s disease—in people who already have the buildup of amyloid-beta plaques—worse. Using these tiny blood vessels as a starting point, we can trace them from your brain to your heart to find the connection between the two organs.

The heart pumps out blood filled with oxygen and nutrients to your entire body, from your leg muscles all the way to your brain. Poor heart health, including heart failure, can be either the cause or the result of poor small vessel function. This impaired vessel function in issues with the heart may affect the amount of blood and nutrients the vessels in the brain are able to deliver to the body. This is where a potential worsening of Alzheimer’s disease comes into play, with the theory mentioned above, about how vessels that don’t work properly may interfere with amyloid-beta accumulation and cognitive function.

So, is there a direct link between heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease? More and more evidence points to the answer being “yes.” Continued research is needed to pinpoint the role that small blood vessels play in both heart health (and failure) and in Alzheimer’s disease and ultimately in their relationship together.

However, the connection between the heart and the brain shows the importance of the small blood vessels that are responsible for big jobs in both organs.

Katie Anne Fopiano is a doctoral candidate at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. She researches how various diseases alter the microvasculature and specifically explores the role the microvasculature plays in the development of cardiovascular and cerebral diseases.

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