Study: Can Better Heart Health Stave off Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Rong Zhang

As someone who has had several relatives diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Carol White can’t help but worry every time she misplaces keys or has trouble recalling a name.

“I live with the possibility Alzheimer’s might also touch my life,” she says. “You just take a deep breath and wonder.”

But the 69-year-old isn’t sitting around and waiting. Instead, she’s joined a study at the UT Southwestern Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute to determine whether regular aerobic exercise and taking specific medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help preserve brain function. 

The heart-brain connection

Recent research suggests heart and brain health are connected, and having heart disease compromises brain function. For example, compelling studies have already shown high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are linked to dementia development later in life. Researchers are now trying to figure out if the converse is true – that is, if leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can have beneficial effects on the brain.  

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that what is bad for your cardiovascular system is bad for your brain,” says Dr. Rong Zhang, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeautics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “The body is one machine and you cannot separate the heart from the brain.”

A national study

That’s where the study Carol White joined comes in. UT Southwestern’s Dr. Zhang is the Principal Investigator for a 5-year investigation – called the Risk Reduction for Alzheimer’s Disease (rrAD) study – being carried out at six medical centers around the nation.

Research coordinator Marcel Turner (left) watches as Tammy Lewis, a nurse who works at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, tests an exercise program being used for a national study to evaluate methods to prevent declines in brain function.

Researchers plan to enroll more than 600 older adults at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and measure whether certain interventions can be linked to slower brain decline. Participants will take part in regular aerobic exercise and take specific medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“People are looking for a silver bullet to stop Alzheimer’s, but it’s a multi-factorial disease – you have to do A, B, C, and D together, which will hopefully make the difference,” says Dr. Zhang, who is also Director of the Cerebrovascular Laboratory in the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where the Dallas arm of the study will be carried out.

Supported by funding from the National Institutes on Aging, the study will measure the effectiveness of different combinations of exercise and medication in four groups of participants. Researchers will then use cognitive testing and MRIs to watch for changes in the participants’ memory, brain volume, brain cell communication, blood flow, and other factors.

Ms. White was the first to sign up for it.

Hope for a cure

“I’m just interested in doing anything that I can that might help in some small way to find a cure,” says Ms. White, who does government and public affairs contract work in the Dallas area. “It’s not a pleasant thing to see your relatives go through.”

Other trial sites for this study include Texas Health Resources in Dallas, the University of Kansas Medical Center, Washington University School of Medicine, Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, and Michigan State University.

Learn more about the study on the rrAD trial website, or contact Tammy Lewis at 214-345-4665 or to get involved.