Non-smoking middle-aged people with healthy hearts have a lower risk of dementia later in life, according to a study.

The health of 1,449 people living in Finland was tracked over several decades by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, based in Stockholm, Sweden.

According to the results published in the journal PLOS Medicine, participants with better scores on markers of cardiovascular health in midlife had a lower risk of dementia later in life. This was especially true for behavioural factors including as smoking, the researchers concluded.

Research has already found that attempts to change modifiable risk factors, including behaviours that impact heart health, might reduce the number of people with dementia by up to one third across the world.

But scientists have up until now failed to establish evidence on associations between risk of dementia in later life and scores on standard heart health metrics in midlife and late life.

 The research team used data from the Finnish Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia study. Participants enrolled from 1972 to 1987 and were then reviewed in 1998. A total of 744 dementia-free survivors were followed up between 2005 and 2008.

The heart health of participants was reviewed midlife to late life on the basis of six factors, with three being behaviour-related, including physical activity, smoking status and body mass index. The other three were biological factors: blood pressure, fasting plasma glucose and total cholesterol. In the first follow up 61 people were diagnosed with dementia and a further 47 people in the second.

The study revealed a lower risk of dementia later in life for those with intermediate or ideal cardiovascular health scores from midlife onwards, especially for behavioural factors, when compared with participants with poor scores.

There was no significant overall link between heart health scores measured in late life and risk of dementia. But the results revealed that ideal scores recorded in late life were linked to a greater risk of dementia when only biological factors were taken into account. This may be down to some biological hallmarks of dementia overlapping with ideal scores on these factors, including lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, the researchers said.

The scientists also noted that the lack of data on diet and blood glucose at midlife were significant limitations of the research.

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