Feb. 23, 2004 A new UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute study suggests that medication, diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices common to good heart health could promote healthier brains as well.
The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study finds that brain damage from mini-strokes related to “normal” aging progresses more extensively in individuals with common heart health risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Detailed in the March edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the study is the first to use precise measures of damage volume to evaluate the advance of subclinical structural brain disease (SSBD) in volunteers over time. SSBD encompasses a range of damage common to people beginning in midlife and often dismissed as normal aging.
Large amounts of damage are common to patients with vascular dementia, and the same research team in 2002 linked these types of brain changes to general declines in mental acuity with aging.
“Some people age more successfully than others, and our findings suggest that everyday behaviors and preventive measures – many involved in promoting heart health -- may be able to make a difference in the health of our brains,” said Dr. Ian Cook, lead author and associate professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. “If we don’t take care of our physical health, our brains and minds pay a price as well.”
In the newly published study, the UCLA research team obtained structural MRIs of 29 volunteers age 60 and older with no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders, and obtained a second MRI from each two to six years later.
Using computer-aided analysis, the research team measured increases in the volume of four types of SSBD: cortical atrophy, central atrophy, deep white-matter hyperintensities and periventricular hyperintensities. Some forms of this damage are visible as bright spots on MRIs.
A majority of the volunteers showed increased SSBD volume in their second scans compared to the first, and the amount of change in the white matter tissue related directly to vascular risk factors. White matter provides the connections between brain cells in the gray matter.
Future studies could include additional longitudinal evaluation of the volunteers, research into the impact of specific interventions on the increase of SSBD, and the relationship of SSBD to depression.
Vascular dementia involves large volumes of the changes seen in SSBD, caused by many “mini strokes” over time. Symptoms can include memory loss, communication difficulties, and diminished physical abilities.
Unlike Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia can affect specific parts of the brain while sparing others, leaving other mental abilities relatively unaffected. In addition, symptoms of vascular dementia may plateau then dip suddenly. People with vascular dementia may be particularly prone to depression because reasoning often remains intact and they understand the implications of the disease.
The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. More information is available online at http://www.npi.ucla.edu
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