A new long-term U.S. study has found that patients who have arterial stiffness are more likely to develop dementia later in life, suggesting that controlling the condition could be an important way of helping to stave off cognitive decline.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, the new study looked at 356 older adults with an average age of 78 who were taking part in the long-term Cardiovascular Health Study Cognition Study (CHS-CS).

The study, which aims to identify dementia risk factors, gave the the researchers access to 15 years of follow-up data on participants' cognitive status and outcomes. All of the participants were dementia-free at the start of the study.

The researchers tested the aortic stiffness of the participants with pulse wave velocity (PWV), a noninvasive test that measures the speed at which the blood pressure pulse travels through the arteries, and measured signs of subclinical brain disease using MRI scans.

The findings, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, showed that arterial stiffness was significantly associated with increased risk of dementia, with subjects with high PWV readings 60 percent more likely to develop dementia during the following 15 year-study than those with lower PWV values.

In addition, aterial stiffness was found to be an even better predictor of dementia than minor signs of brain disease.

The findings also held true even after the researchers had taken into account other factors such as education, race, diabetes, and body mass index.

"As the large arteries get stiffer, their ability to cushion the pumping of blood from the heart is diminished, and that transmits increased pulsing force to the brain, which contributes to silent brain damage that increases dementia risk," explained senior author Rachel Mackey, Ph.D., M.P.H., "Although arterial stiffness is associated with markers of silent, or subclinical, brain damage and cognitive decline, until now, it was not clear that arterial stiffness was associated with the risk of dementia."

Since arterial stiffness can be reduced by antihypertensive drugs, and possibly also by making healthy lifestyle changes such as exercise, the findings suggest that aterial stiffness is a risk factor for dementia that should be modifiable even well into old age, with Mackey adding that, "What's exciting to think about is that the strong association of arterial stiffness to dementia in old age suggests that even at age 70 or 80, we might still be able to delay or prevent the onset of dementia."