How to Address Cardiovascular Risk Factors for Better Brain Health: 12 Risks to Know & 5 Things to Do

How to Address Cardiovascular Risk Factors by Leslie Kernisan, MD MPH

 by Leslie Kernisan, MD MPH

This excerpt is reposted with permission from You can find the original full article here:

A while back, I wrote an article on cerebral small vessel disease, a very common condition in which the small blood vessels of the brain develop signs of damage.

If you’re an older adult and you’ve had an MRI done of your brain, chances are pretty good that your scan showed signs of at least mild signs of this condition; one study of older adults aged 60-90 found that 95% of them showed signs of these changes.

These are basically like teensy strokes in the brain. Most are un-noticeable to people, but if you have enough of them, you can certainly develop symptoms, such as cognitive impairment, balance problems, or even vascular dementia.

To date, the cerebral small vessel disease article has generated over 100 comments and questions from readers. A common theme was this: “My MRI shows signs of this condition. What can I do?”

As I explain in the article and the comments, the first thing to do is to work closely with your doctors to understand what is the likely cause of the damage to the brain’s small blood vessels.

Now, when you do this, you may well find that your doctor just shrugs, or waves off the question.

That’s because in most people, cerebral small vessel disease is thought to be in large part a result of atherosclerosis (more on this term below) affecting the smaller arteries of the brain.  And atherosclerosis affects just about everyone as they age, because it’s related to many basic cardiovascular risk factors that become very common in late-life.

So in many cases, asking the doctor why you have signs of cerebral small vessel disease may be like asking why you might have high blood pressure, or arthritis. These are common conditions and they are usually due to medically mundane causes and risk factors, including sub-optimal “lifestyle” behaviors and the general “wear and tear” on the body that is associated with aging.

(However, in some people, damage to the small vessels in the brain may be related to one or more particular medical conditions. Younger people, in particular, seem more likely to have a particular condition or risk factor that may be causing most of the damage.)

Whether you are younger (i.e under age 60) or older, always start by asking your doctors what they think are the most likely causes for any cerebral small vessel disease, and what they recommend you do to slow the progression.

And for most people, the main advice will be this: evaluate and address your cardiovascular risk factors.

“Vascular,” as you probably already know, means “blood vessels.” And blood vessels are critical to the function of every part of the body, because blood vessels are what brings oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. They also carry away waste products and toxins. So, blood vessel health is key to brain health.

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