Closely intertwined, heart disease and dementia have become major concerns for elderly adults over 80, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Conducted in Pittsburgh from 1998–2014, the Cardiovascular Health Study–Cognition Study analyzed risk of dementia and heart disease among very elderly adults. With many adults living well beyond their 80s, dementia and heart disease become major health concerns. Most dementia cases in the U.S. are diagnosed after the age of 75. The build-up of calcium and plaque in the arteries in old age can increase risk for heart disease and heart events. The question is: How can we help prevent these serious and life-threatening conditions?
To learn more, researchers followed 311 elderly adults from 1998 through 2013. On average, participants were followed from ages 80–93 and were free of heart disease and dementia at the start of the study.
Upon enrollment, participants underwent CT scans at the start of the study to measure the build-up of calcium in the arteries called coronary artery calcium (CAC). Research suggests that CAC increases risk for heart disease and heart events. Many “healthy” patients without heart disease may have CAC, which puts them at increased risk for heart events.
After following participants for over a decade, researchers found that more participants developed dementia than heart disease between ages 80 and 93. Overall, roughly 25% of deaths were caused by heart disease and 16% by dementia. However, 64% of patients who died had a previous diagnosis of dementia.
However, the build-up of coronary artery calcium had a big impact on risk for heart disease and death. More than one-third of patients, mostly men, had very high levels of calcium build-up. Higher CAC level was associated with greater risk for heart disease and heart attack. Interestingly, women with low CAC levels also had significantly lower risk for dementia.
The take-home message, as authors explain, is that coronary artery calcium may be an important predictor of heart disease and even dementia in elderly adults. Patients without heart disease may still be at increased risk for heart events if they have coronary artery calcium. High levels of coronary artery calcium may also be linked to increased risk for dementia, based on study findings. With further research, experts hope to determine whether preventing calcium build-up will help reduce risk of both heart disease and dementia in elderly adults.