An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology
An undated image of a human brain. REUTERS

Bad habits like smoking and maintaining high blood pressure not only run the risk of heart disease, they can also lead the brain to deteriorate over time, a new study find.

The eponymous Framingham Heart Study has been tracking residents of a Massachusetts town since 1948, and its latest report studied risk factors in a population whose average age was 54. A series of cognitive tests and data from brain imaging established a correlation between loss of mental function or shrinking brains and diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure or being overweight at middle age.

Damage to the brain manifested itself differently depending on what caused it. People with high blood pressure started faring worse on tests and struggling with planning and decision making as their brains suffered losses in "white matter"; those with diabetes saw their memories slip as the hippocampus shrank; smokers lost overall brain mass at a faster rate; and overweight patients lost both brain mass and executive function.

The study affirmed a link between cardiovascular health and brain function that has been established by previous research showing that poor cardiovascular health increases the likelihood of dementia. In health as in most things, mind and body are inseparable.

"We can't cure disease or cure aging, but the idea of a healthy body, healthy mind is very real," Dr. Charles DeCarli of the University of California Davis' Alzheimer's Disease Center told Medical News Today. "People should stop smoking, control their blood pressure, avoid diabetes and lose weight."

Since its inception midway through the 20th century, the Framingham Heart Study has been uncovering such linkages. Scientists there also found a connection between smoking and heart disease, high cholesterol and heart disease and high blood pressure and strokes.