University of Vermont

Cushman and Gillett Coauthor Paper on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Cognition

Mary Cushman, MD
University of Vermont Professor of Medicine Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc. (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

A new study co-authored by University of Vermont Professor of Medicine Mary Cushman, M.D., and medical student Sarah Gillett, Ph.D., links cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive impairment. Using the American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7 metric of modifiable health behaviors and factors that can improve cardiovascular health, the researchers examined participants in the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study and found that, compared with low cardiovascular health, intermediate and high levels of health were both associated with lower incidence of cognitive impairment.

The study appears in the June 11, 2014 Journal of the American Heart Association. Cushman is senior author and Gillett is second author. First author is Evan Thacker, Ph.D., of the Department of Health Science at Brigham Young University.

In collaboration with other REGARDS investigators, Gillett developed the definition for cognitive impairment used for the study while completing her Ph.D. at UVM. Her method involved a three‐test measure of verbal learning, memory, and fluency obtained a mean of four years after baseline to identify incident cognitive impairment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes cognitive impairment as characterized by having "trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life."

“In this prospective cohort study, we studied the association of cardiovascular health to future cognitive impairment in REGARDS participants aged 45+ who had normal global cognitive status at baseline and no history of stroke," says Gillett.

The researchers calculated each REGARDS participant's baseline Life's Simple 7 score – a range of 0 to 14 – based on smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting glucose.

“Those in the top two thirds of cardiovascular health – as determined by Life’s Simple 7 scores – had a 35 percent lower risk of becoming cognitively impaired. The association was consistent across region of the U.S. and race," says Cushman. "These findings demonstrate the important link between cardiovascular and brain health.”

The study's authors were able to demonstrate that achieving even an intermediate level of cardiovascular health appears to significantly reduce incidence of cognitive impairment.

About the REGARDS Study

REGARDS is a population‐based observational cohort study of 30,239 adults aged 45 and above at baseline, enrolled between January 2003 and October 2007. The cohort is 55 percent women, 45 percent men, 42 percent blacks, 58 percent whites, 56 percent residents of stroke belt states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), and 44 percent of residents of the other 40 continental United States.