0515-Feature-World Health Assembly_Blog

The critical link between heart health and brain health — and the need for a strong public health message about it — is on the international stage this week, as health leaders gather in Geneva for the 68th annual World Health Assembly.

A Tuesday event during the weeklong meeting examined recent studies that have shown dementia risk can be modified through control of risk factors such as avoiding tobacco use and controlling hypertension and diabetes.

“This is good news,” American Heart Association President Elliott Antman, M.D., senior cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said before the meeting. “It means by using a holistic approach to attending to the set of risk factors we are all familiar with, we will not only be able to reduce cardiovascular disease, but also impact brain health.”nancybrown2

Tuesday’s gathering, called “What is Good for the Heart, is Good for the Brain,” was sponsored by Alzheimer’s Disease International, the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance and the World Heart Federation. It also featured leaders such as Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association; the Karolinska Institute, a Swedish medical university; and the South African Health Ministry.

“We know there is an important double benefit to healthier behaviors, and we also understand the importance of further research and awareness efforts because heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death in the world,” Brown said before the meeting, where she discussed a patient-centered approach to managing risk through community programs and public health messages.

A recent study published in the United Kingdom medical journal The Lancet said: “A third of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide are estimated to be attributable to seven modifiable factors (low education, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking, and depression), providing prevention opportunities.” Randomized trials were “desperately” needed to confirm the associations and investigate solutions, the study found.


American Heart Association’s President Elliott Antman and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown.

Participants in Tuesday’s panel also discussed global “roadmaps” being developed by the World Heart Federation to target three areas of cardiovascular disease prevention: preventing heart attack and stroke through drug therapy and counseling for those with high risk; reducing daily tobacco use by 30 percent; and increasing hypertension control by 25 percent.

While the prevalence of heart disease is higher in wealthier countries, its devastating effects are felt more profoundly in lower-income countries, where more than 80 percent of cardiovascular disease deaths occur, said Antman, who led a discussion on a high blood pressure roadmap Sunday. With developing countries seeing higher and higher rates of the disease, it’s increasingly important to use these roadmaps to examine a broader integrated approach to heart-brain health.

“With the aging of our population, we are seeing more and more individuals who are at risk for dementia and there is an urgent need to focus on the heart-brain connection,” Antman said.

Globally, the number of people 60 and older is expected to more than double, from 841 million people in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The entire discussion is under the larger umbrella of the World Health Organization’s target of reducing premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases 25 percent by 2025.

Photo courtesy of Diana Vaca McGhie