Risk factors for dementia: obesity and high blood pressure

Many people fear that your intellectual functions will deteriorate, especially as they age. The older we get, the more pronounced this problem becomes, and after all we are all getting older. But we can certainly reduce the risk of poorer intellectual abilities as we grow older. This is the conclusion of neuropsychologist Yael Reijmer of the University of Utrecht. Obesity and high blood pressure are the main culprits. Many people fear that your intellectual functions will deteriorate, especially as they age. But strangely enough, we pay little attention to the question of whether we can do something about this at a somewhat younger age. Neuropsychologist Yael Reijmer from the University of Utrecht has found an interesting answer to that question. Her conclusions: high blood pressure and obesity in middle age negatively affect your intellectual functioning in a much later period, namely around the age of seventy. Reijmer points to brain damage that occurs with age as the suspected cause.

Who, what and how?

Neuropsychologist Yael Reijmer analyzed the data of almost 400 people. These were between 50 and 64 years of age at the time of examination and showed no signs of dementia. The basis of the research is a long-term measurement of the health of these people, over a period of fifteen years. At the beginning of the study, but also during the course of it, factors such as blood pressure and waist circumference were identified. These are – at least in medical science – known risk factors for deterioration of brain functions. In addition, mental or cognitive functioning was examined, for example reaction speed and memory.

High blood pressure and obesity portend problems

What does the research show? Those who had high blood pressure and were overweight at the start of the study were indeed more likely to have cognitive problems fifteen years later. Compared to people who did not show such so-called ‘cardiovascular risk factors’, their memory worked worse, they processed information more slowly than others and they had more problems with their concentration.

Microscopic brain damage

Reijmer states that this cognitive decline is the result of microscopic damage that occurs in the brain. That’s why she used an advanced MRI scan to analyze the brains of 35 diabetes patients and 35 healthy subjects. She examined the so-called ‘white matter tracts’. Simply put, these are connecting pathways in the brain that are necessary for proper processing and integration of information. It turned out that patients with type II diabetes had more small abnormalities in this white matter. These abnormalities also appeared to be associated with poorer cognitive performance.

Unhealthy living now, brain damage later

On the one hand, this is bad news, because the newspapers are full of it: half of the Netherlands is now too fat. On the other hand, this is hopeful, because you can certainly do something now to counteract the deterioration of your mind over the years. Anyone who wants to reduce the risk of dementia through healthy living should start on time, Reijmer advises. An unhealthy lifestyle leads to obesity and high blood pressure. These risk factors therefore cause brain damage in the long term. This brain damage is associated with cognitive problems, such as slowness and memory problems. These insights can contribute to the development of treatment strategies to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. In short: worry less about later, but eat a little healthier, exercise a little more and… you have a better chance of good mental health in your later years!

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