Cardiovascular risk factors, such as alcohol consumption, smoking, obesity and diabetes, are linked with smaller regional brain volumes that may be early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, a new study has found.
“We already know that vascular risk factors damage the brain and can result in cognitive impairment,” said Kevin S King, assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“But our findings give us a more concrete idea about the relationship between specific vascular risk factors and brain health,” King said.
Due to each region’s connection to memory retrieval, grey matter volume loss in these areas may be a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In the study, researchers analysed results from 1,629 individuals in the Dallas Heart Study (DHS) and divided the participants into two age groups.
There were 805 participants under age 50, and 824 age 50 and older.
Researchers evaluated the participants’ data from the initial baseline visit, and the follow-up visit seven years later consisting of a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cognitive test, measuring mild cognitive impairment and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.
By comparing the initial visit in which cardiovascular risk factors were identified to the MRI results and cognitive scores, the team was able to distinguish the specific risk factors of alcohol consumption, smoking, diabetes, and obesity and their relationship to smaller volumes in the three targeted regions of the brain.
The results confirmed that lower cognitive test scores correlated with lower brain volumes in each area.
The study found that risk factors of alcohol use and diabetes were associated with smaller total brain volume, while smoking and obesity were linked with reduced volumes of the posterior cingulate cortex, the area of the brain connected with memory retrieval as well as emotional and social behaviour.
In addition, lower hippocampal mass was linked to both alcohol consumption and smoking whereas alcohol use, obesity and high fasting blood glucose numbers correlated with reduced precuneus size.
The findings also suggest that in patients age 50 and older, diminished hippocampal and precuneus volumes may be risk indicators for cognitive decline, while smaller posterior cingulate volumes are predictors in patients under age 50.
“We currently do not have effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, so the focus is on prevention,” he said.
“In the future, we may be able to provide patients with useful and actionable information about the impact different risk factors may be having on their brain health during routine clinical imaging,” King said.
The study was published in the journal Radiology.