Study Finds Link Between Poor Cardiovascular Health in Childhood and Poor Cognitive Function in Middle Age

Skylar Kenney, Assistant Editor

Managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol in children may help protect brain function later in life.

Managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol in children may help protect brain function later in life, according to a study published in Circulation. According to the authors, this is the first study finding a connection between accumulated cardiovascular risk factors from childhood and poor cognitive performance at midlife.

Prior research indicates that nearly 1 in 5 people over age 60 years have at least mild loss of cognitive function, with deficits being linked to cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, and poor diet, as well as depression, and low education level. Many diseases that cause neurological deficits, such as Alzheimer, have a long preclinical phase before noticeable symptoms begin. As a result, finding links between childhood obesity and other cardiovascular risk factors is important for cognitive health.

“We can use these results to turn the focus of brain health from old age and midlife to people in younger age groups,” said Juuso O. Hakala, MD, a PhD student at the Research Centre of Applied and Prevention Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Turku, Finland, in a press release. “Our results show active monitoring and prevention of heart disease and stroke risk factors, beginning from early childhood, can also matter greatly when it comes to brain health. Children who have adverse cardiovascular risk factors might benefit from early intervention and lifestyle modifications.”

The Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study is a national, longitudinal study on cardiovascular risk from childhood to adulthood in Finland. The researchers tracked the cardiovascular risk factor profiles of the patients for 31 years, from childhood to adulthood. Baseline clinical examinations were conducted in 1980 on approximately 3600 randomly selected children ranging in ages from 3 to 18 years. More than 2000 of the participants, ranging from 34 to 49 years of age, underwent a computerized cognitive function test in 2011. The test measured episodic memory and associative learning, short-term working memory, reaction and movement time, and visual processing and sustained attention.

The study found that systolic blood pressure, total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, as well as body mass index, from childhood to midlife are corelated with brain function in middle age. Further, consistently high systolic blood pressure or high blood total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were linked to worse memory and learning by midlife when compared with lower measures. Obesity from childhood to adulthood was associated with lower visual information processing speed and maintaining attention, and having all 3 cardiovascular risk factors was linked to poorer memory and associative learning, worse visual processing, decreased attention span, and slower reaction and movement time.

As these results are from observational findings, further studies are needed to learn whether there are specific ages in childhood and adolescence when cardiovascular risk factors are particularly important to brain health in adulthood. Limitations of the current study include an inability to determine a definite causal link between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive performance, as well as performing an analysis of cognition only once. Further, all of the participants were white, meaning the results may not be broadly applicable across ethnicities.

REFERENCE

Managing children's weight, blood pressure and cholesterol protects brain function mid-life [news release]. EurekAlert; May 10, 2021. Accessed May 10, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-05/aha-mcw050521.php