THURSDAY, May 2 (HealthDay News) -- Heart disease risk factors can lead to a decline in brain function in both younger and older adults, Dutch researchers report.

The new study included nearly 3,800 people, aged 35 to 82, who were checked for heart disease risk factors such as smoking, diabetes and high levels of "bad" cholesterol, and given tests to assess their memory and mental skills such as the ability to plan and reason and to begin and switch tasks.

Those with the highest risk for heart disease did 50 percent worse on the mental tests than those with the lowest risk. Two heart disease risk factors -- smoking and diabetes -- were especially associated with poorer brain function, according to the study in the May 2 issue of the journal Stroke.

The link between heart disease risk factors and reduced brain function was seen in all age groups, the investigators noted.

"Young adults may think the consequences of smoking or being overweight are years down the road, but they aren't," study author Dr. Hanneke Joosten, a nephrology fellow at the University Medical Center in Groningen, the Netherlands, said in a journal news release.

"Most people know the negative effects of heart risk factors such as heart attack, stroke and [kidney] impairment, but they do not realize it affects cognitive [mental] health. What's bad for the heart is also bad for the brain," Joosten added.

She said doctors need to be aware of this link between heart disease risk factors and brain function decline, and more public action is needed to reduce heart disease risk factors.

"Smoking cessation programs might not only prevent cancer, stroke and cardiovascular events, but also cognitive [mental] damage," Joosten said.

The association between heart risk factors and poorer brain function seen in the study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health outlines steps you can take to reduce heart risks.