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Heart healthy indicators and behaviors in adolescents linked to better cognitive function, according to ƹƵAppHealth Houston research

Photo of Augusto César F. De Moraes, PhD, MS.
Augusto César F. De Moraes, PhD, MS, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at ƹƵAppHealth Houston School of Public Health. (Photo by ƹƵAppHealth Houston)

Cardiovascular health behaviors and overall cardiovascular health were directly associated with adolescent brain development and cognitive function, according to ƹƵAppHealth Houston research published recently in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.

Led by first author Augusto César F. De Moraes, PhD, MS, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at ƹƵAppHealth Houston School of Public Health, researchers found that adolescents with healthier cardiovascular behaviors showed higher cognitive and executive function.

“While there have been studies on cardiovascular health and cognitive function in adults, less is known about these associations in adolescents,” said De Moraes, who is with the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the school. “Our study fills this gap by evaluating multiple aspects of cardiovascular health and their relationship with brain structure and cognitive performance in a younger demographic.”

The research team analyzed secondary research from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study of the National Institutes of Health, an ongoing study that focuses on brain development and overall health in adolescents. The study team analyzed a series of blood samples and standardized assessments, including neuroimaging, cognitive testing, and surveys of 978 adolescents.

Researchers based the analysis of cardiovascular health in each individual on methodology from the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8. It includes eight components of cardiovascular health: diet, physical activity, smoking, sleep, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and fasting glucose. 

“These lifestyle behaviors contribute to anti-inflammatory effects, crucially countering chronic inflammation known to be associated with cognitive decline,” said De Moraes. 

A questionnaire and MRI assessed executive function and cortical brain volume. The study team found that overall cardiovascular health (eight components combined) is most strongly associated with the whole brain cortical volume.

“Our study emphasizes the importance of early prevention and intervention strategies focusing on enhancing cardiovascular health, which reflects in better brain and cognitive development,” De Moraes said. “Public health initiatives encouraging physical activity, balanced diets, adequate sleep, and healthy lifestyles could substantially benefit cognitive development and reduce the risk of future cardiovascular and mental diseases.”

De Moraes said further research is needed to understand the causal mechanisms linking cardiovascular health to brain health and cognitive function.

“Longitudinal studies could provide insights into how changes in cardiovascular health over time affect cognitive development, helping to refine intervention strategies,” De Moraes said. “This is our next step; we will continue following these adolescents and understand the long-term effect of heart health on brain development.”

Additional ƹƵAppHealth Houston authors included Ethan H. Hunt, PhD, MPH, and Harold W. Kohl, PhD, MSPH (in memoriam). Other authors included Gregory Knell, PhD, MS, with The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth; John Virostko, PhD, with The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School; Susan S. Tapert, PhD, with University of California San Diego; and Marcus V. Nascimento-Ferreira, PhD, with University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

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