Experts believe the five-minute test could become the first way to screen those at risk of being struck down by the devastating brain disease. Trials have showed those with the most intensive pulse beat were 50 per cent more likely to exhibit accelerated mental decline. However, if spotted well in advance, it could be a “potentially treatable cause of cognitive decline in middle-aged adults”, said Dr Scott Chiesa, who led the research at University College London.
He said: “These findings demonstrate the first direct link between the intensity of the pulse transmitted towards the brain with every heartbeat and future impairments in cognitive function.
“It’s therefore an easily measurable and potentially treatable cause of cognitive decline in middle-aged adults which can be spotted well in advance.”
Damage Scientists believe the heart’s pulse could be a major factor in the development of vascular dementia – which affects 150,000 people in the UK – by causing irreparable damage to fragile vessels over time.
When the heart beats, it generates a pulse that travels around the body. Healthy, elastic blood vessels near the heart cushions the pulse beat.
Factors like ageing and high blood pressure cause stiffening of these blood vessels. As a result, a progressively stronger pulse can travel to the brain.
Factors like ageing and high blood pressure cause stiffening of these blood vessels
Over time, this can cause damage to small vessels in the brain, which can contribute to dementia’s development.
In a study co-founded by the British Heart Foundation, 3,191 middle-aged volunteers were given an ultrasound in 2002 which measured the intensity of the pulse to their brain.
Over 15 years, it monitored their memory and problem-solving skills. Those with the highest intensity pulse at the start were 50 per cent more likely to exhibit accelerated cognitive decline.
The research will be presented today at the American Heart Association conference in Chicago.
HEART DISEASE WAS CLUE I’D GET ALZHEIMER’S AT 59
FORMER information technology manager and lecturer Wayne Eaton was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s at 59.
A decade earlier he suffered a heart attack but at the time, he did not have any symptoms of dementia.
However people with coronary heart disease are twice as likely to experience vascular dementia and Mr Eaton also had high cholesterol, which can clog up arteries carrying blood to the brain.
He said: “Although the changes in my brain had probably already started it wasn’t until I was 53 that there were discernible symptoms.
“I would use the wrong words or forget to put the right names with faces.
“I was teaching business at degree level, so being in a classroom was very difficult.
Former lecturer Wayne Eaton would forget names
“Then I started feeling lost in places I knew well. Those sorts of things got worse and worse.
“This caused others, and me, to get frustrated and scared. This is when I was persuaded to start getting it checked out,” Doctors initially blamed stress. Mr Eaton, of Gillingham, Kent, had been through divorce and had left his job due to health problems. He was also grieving the loss of his mother and his son, Kevin, who died of a heart attack at 28.
He was later diagnosed with mixed dementia – vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s – in 2014 after detailed interviews and MRI scans of his brain.
Vascular dementia means Mr Eaton, who had a stroke in 2016, is unable to work but he refuses to remain downbeat: “I’m 62. It doesn’t define me and nor should it ever do so.”
COMMENT BY PHILIP HOBSON
OBESITY rates are stubbornly high, driving an increase in the number of people who have Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
While most people know this means a rise in cases of heart disease, few realise they could mean a rise in cases of vascular dementia.
Both the brain and the heart need something in common to stay healthy – a good blood supply.
That’s partially why both vascular dementia and coronary heart disease share many risk factors – high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high blood cholesterol. We don’t know enough yet about what causes vascular dementia. We have few drugs to treat it and there is no cure.
Leading a healthy lifestyle can reduce our risk of developing it much like heart disease, but we’re in desperate need of finding treatments which can slow down the progression of this devastating condition.
Philippa Hobson is Senior Nurse at British Heart Foundation