By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, June 11, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Good heart health benefits your brain, a new study suggests.
People with poor heart health are more likely to develop mental impairment than those with healthy hearts, according to researchers.
The study looked at about 17,800 Americans, aged 45 and older, who underwent tests of mental function at the start of the study and again four years later.
After accounting for differences in age, sex, race and education, the investigators found that learning, memory and verbal skills deficits developed in 4.6 percent of people with the poorest heart health, 2.7 percent of those with intermediate heart health and 2.6 percent of those with the most healthy hearts.
"Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better [mental] function," lead investigator Evan Thacker, an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University, said in a journal news release.
"This is an encouraging message because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target for many individuals than ideal cardiovascular health," he added.
The study was published online June 11 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The investigators found that better heart health was more common among men, people with higher levels of education, and those with higher incomes.
Rates of mental impairment were more common among people with lower incomes, those with heart disease, and people who lived in the "stroke belt" states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Though the study found a link between better heart health and good mental function, the researchers weren't able to prove that good heart health causes better brain function. And, they said that an exact mechanism behind the association remains unclear. However, one possibility is that small strokes that didn't cause noticeable symptoms might play a role, according to Thacker.