updated 6/3/2011 12:35:33 PM ET 2011-06-03T16:35:33

People who live in the "Stroke Belt" — a group of eight southeastern states where stroke is 50 percent more prevalent than in other U.S. states — also have an 18 percent higher risk of cognitive decline than people who live elsewhere in the country, according to a new study.

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The higher risk stems from the fact that stroke and cognitive decline, which is a decline in memory and other brain-functioning abilities, have similar risk factors, said study researcher Virginia Wadley, associate professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease [and] historical socioeconomic disparities likely play a role, as well as the traditional Southern diet," Wadley told MyHealthNewsDaily. "We are investigating these and other factors now."

Wadley and her colleagues analyzed the health data of 23,913 people ages 45 and older from both Stroke Belt and non-Stroke Belt states, who had no reported cases of stroke when they were recruited for the study between 2003 and 2007. Researchers gave the people in the study a test that measured their brain functioning.

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Stroke Belt states include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Researchers found that over about four years, 8.1 percent of the people in the study showed signs of cognitive impairment. People who lived in the Stroke Belt were 18 percent more likely to develop the cognitive impairment over the study period than people from the non-Stroke Belt states. The study was published today (May 26) in the journal Annals of Neurology.

Wadley said stroke and cognitive impairment are both linked by vascular disease, which is when blood flow is obstructed in the blood vessels. If untreated, vascular disease can lead to blood clots and stroke. Vascular disease is also associated with a decline in brain functioning, according to a 2002 study in the journal Age and Ageing.

Pass it on: People who live in the "Stroke Belt," eight southeastern U.S. states where stroke prevalence is higher than elsewhere in the country, are at high risk for cognitive impairment.

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Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @ AmandaLChan.

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