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Managing Kids' Weight and Blood Pressure Linked to Better Brain Health

A young child and an adult in the kitchen look at fresh vegetables.

Key Takeaways

  • By middle age, cardiovascular risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity from childhood were associated with reduced memory, learning, visual processing, attention span, and reaction and movement time.
  • Strategies to guard against heart disease and stroke should be reinforced early on to promote better brain health in middle age.

As people age, brain health can become an increasing concern. A recently published study in Circulation has demonstrated links between cardiovascular risk factors in childhood through middle age and poorer brain health in middle age in a study of only White participants.

While brain health is often taken more seriously later in life, this research bodes well for the implementation of preventative measures from a young age to address concerns such as high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, etc, with healthy eating and regular movement.

This research supports the promotion of healthy behaviors from childhood to support brain health later in life but needs to be considered alongside the impacts of rampant oppression on physical and mental wellbeing for the sake of folx who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, disabled, etc.

What the Research Tells Us

This longitudinal study began with 3596 children, aged 3–18 years in Finland, who were repeatedly followed for 31 years to assess how cardiovascular risk factors from a young age may impact brain health.

For this research that started in 1980, follow-up studies were conducted for the whole group over the course of 31 years. Each interaction involved checking the participant's vitals as well as a cognitive assessment to determine correlation.

While there was no baseline measure of cognitive functioning or any BIPOC individuals in this research, its main strength remains a large-scale randomly selected population-based cohort, with a follow-up period of over 30 years.

Taking Preventative Measures Early On

The Chair of the Department of Pediatric Cardiology at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center, Cara Garofalo, MD, says, "When it comes to cardiovascular risk factors, we know that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity in adults have been linked, not only to heart disease but also to disease affecting other organs including the brain."

Cara Garofalo, MD

When it comes to cardiovascular risk factors, we know that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity in adults have been linked, not only to heart disease but also to disease affecting other organs including the brain.

— Cara Garofalo, MD

Garofalo explains that cognitive function is an important but complicated indicator of brain health as many different variables can affect cognitive function, and it is difficult to tease out a definite cause and effect link. The researchers have acknowledged this as they present data associating cardiovascular risk factors in childhood with cognitive function in middle age.

Studies like these should empower parents to foster healthy eating and exercise habits in their children to help maintain optimal brain function later in life. The younger kids learn the importance of good nutrition, the more likely they will be to carry healthy habits with them into adulthood.

Putting This Study in Perspective

Sabrina Sarro, LMSW says "Cardiovascular health is important and access to good heart and body care is a human right. We must speak about how race, access, and oppression are related to heart and body health. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other."

Sarro says that folx must take into consideration how racism and race inform cardiovascular health, as factors such as stress, ability, and class all impact this. The social determinants of health need to be part of how recommendations are implemented given how forces of oppression can limit the ability to take appropriate measures to manage health concerns. 

Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

We cannot begin to talk about the mind, body, or spirit without first contextualizing racism. 

— Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

What This Means For You

Cardiovascular risk factors from childhood to middle age can have a negative impact on brain health in later life. While it is well advised to try to address such concerns as high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol if able, more needs to be done at the larger societal levels to address such forces of oppression like white supremacy, poverty, ableism, etc.

Until marginalization is tackled as the public health issue it has always been, equitable health outcomes will remain challenging for those who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, etc.

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  1. Hakala J, Pahkala K, Juonala M et al. Cardiovascular Risk Factor Trajectories Since Childhood and Cognitive Performance in Midlife: The Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns StudyCirculation. 2021. doi:10.1161/circulationaha.120.052358