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Mid-life health risks accelerate brain shrinkage

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Brain shrinkage

Obesity, high blood pressure and other factors linked to loss of brain volume

A combination of obesity, smoking, diabetes and blood pressure in mid-life leads to brain shrinkage a decade later, finds new research. According to American Academy of Neurology scientists, each has a different effect on the brain that causes it to shrink or lose volume, setting the stage for cognitive decline.

The researchers say the finding means people with identified risk factors should be screened in middle life so they can make lifestyle changes. Brain shrinkage found from being overweight, smoking, having a larger waist circumference and diabetes can affect the ability to plan and make decisions by age 64.

Lifestyle changes during middle age curbs dementia risk

Study author Charles DeCarli, MD, with the University of California at Davis in Sacramento and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology said,

"Our findings provide evidence that identifying these risk factors early in people of middle age could be useful in screening people for at-risk dementia and encouraging people to make changes to their lifestyle before it's too late."

For the study, the researchers measured waist circumference, body mass index and blood pressure in 1,352 people without signs of dementia who were part of the Framingham Offspring Study, whose average age was 54. They also tested for diabetes, and checked cholesterol levels.

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Seven years later, MRI scans were performed, and again at ten years. Nineteen of the participants had a stroke before the last MRI scan and were excluded from the study. Two developed dementia.

High blood pressure. smoking obesity in mid-life ages the brain

High blood pressure in middle age was associated with faster rates of brain damage compared to people with normal blood pressure. Higher blood pressure correlated with five to eight years of aging, compared to normotensive study participants.

The study also found people with high blood pressure showed faster decline in executive function scores and the ability to plan and make decisions.

Diabetes in mid-life was associated with changes in the hippocampus of the brain – the area that is responsible for short and long-term memory.

The research also found the hippocampus of the brain deteriorates faster in smokers, compared to non-smokers.

People who were obese in middle age were in the top 25 percent declining ability to perform executive functions – some of which include making decisions, remembering details, planning time and paying attention. Those with a higher waist- to- hip ratio lost brain volume more quickly than participants with normal ratios.

The study suggests obesity, diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure in middle life can lead to brain shrinkage within a decade that in turn lead to dementia. Lifestyle changes around age 50 could keep the brain sharp for decades.