You know it’s important to eat right, exercise and keep your cholesterol under control to reduce your risk of a heart attack of stroke. If that’s not enough of an incentive, new research suggests that taking care of your cardiovascular system will pay off for your brain as well.

A study of more than 6,600 senior citizens found that the better they scored on seven measures of cardiovascular health, the lower their risk of dementia over the ensuing years.

The difference was dramatic: Among those with the lowest scores, dementia developed at a rate of 13.3 cases per 100 people. But among those with the highest scores, there were only 7.1 cases per 100 people.

The results, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, should prompt doctors and patients alike to focus on cardiovascular fitness for the sake of preserving cognitive health, experts said.

“To achieve a lifetime of robust brain health free of dementia, it is never too early or too late to strive for attainment of ideal cardiovascular health,” Dr. Jeffrey Saver, a leader of the UCLA Stroke Center, and Dr. Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont wrote in an editorial that accompanies the study.

There have already been many clues that vascular problems can translate into brain problems. Narrowed, blocked or leaky blood vessels can lead to strokes, which are the No. 2 cause of dementia (after Alzheimer’s disease). Observational studies have turned up connections between cardiovascular conditions in midlife and cognitive conditions in late life.

The new study adds to the picture by focusing on adults who are already in their senior years.

The data came from the Three-City Study, a research effort from France that enrolled residents of Bordeaux, Dijon and Montpellier. All of the participants were at least 65 years old when they enrolled in the study (their average age was 73.7 years). Upon joining, they were given a battery of physical and cognitive tests.

For the JAMA report, the researchers focused on seven metrics of cardiovascular health that the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7. Four of the metrics are behavioral (diet, exercise, weight management and smoking status) and three are biological (blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol).

However, the study did not track changes in people’s cardiovascular health over time, so there was no way to know whether improving one’s cardiovascular health was associated with a lower dementia risk, they added.

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