Aging is a global phenomenon in the body, so measures of its progression in different organs tend to correlate well. In some cases this is because there is direct causation involved rather than it being a matter of independent processes that spring from the same root causes. The health of the cardiovascular system is demonstrably connected to the health of the brain. For example, the structural failure of small blood vessels in the brain, driven by increased blood pressure and the processes of stiffening in blood vessel walls, destroys small areas of brain tissue on an ongoing basis. The more such destruction, the worse off the individual, and the greater the age-related loss of mental capacity.
Researchers studied a racially diverse group of older adults and found that having more ideal cardiovascular health factors was associated with better brain processing speed at the study's start and less cognitive decline approximately six years later. At the beginning of the study, 1,033 participants in the Northern Manhattan Study (average age 72; 65 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black and 16 percent white), were tested for memory, thinking and brain processing speed. Brain processing speed measures how quickly a person is able to perform tasks that require focused attention. Approximately six years later, 722 participants repeated the cognitive testing, which allowed researchers to measure performance over time.
The researchers found that having more ideal cardiovascular health factors was associated with better brain processing speed at the initial assessment. The association was strongest for being a non-smoker, having ideal fasting glucose and ideal weight. Having more cardiovascular health factors was associated with less decline over time in processing speed, memory and executive functioning. Executive function in the brain is associated with focusing, time management and other cognitive skills. While this study suggests achieving ideal cardiovascular health measures is beneficial to brain function, future studies are needed to determine the value of routinely assessing and treating risk factors, such as high blood pressure, in order to reduce brain function decline.