Persons with high blood pressure experienced a more rapid worsening of test scores of planning and decision making, which corresponded to a faster rate of growth of small areas of vascular brain damage than those with normal blood pressure.
Those study participants with diabetes in middle age experienced brain shrinkage in an area known as the hippocampus faster than those without, and smokers lost brain volume overall and in the hippocampus faster than nonsmokers, with a more rapid increase of small areas of vascular brain damage.
Finally, persons who were obese at middle age were more likely to be in the top 25% of those with faster declines in tests of executive function and were among the top 25% with a faster drop in brain volume.
Dr. Charles DeCarli, director of UC Davis' Alzheimer's Disease Center explains how real a problem this can be with a pun:
"We can't cure disease or cure aging, but the idea of a healthy body, healthy mind is very real. People should stop smoking, control their blood pressure, avoid diabetes and lose weight. It seems like a no brainer...It could be so much worse in a representative group of Americans; the study certainly doesn't represent the growing obesity problem seen in the South."
It is important to note that all study participants were white and only 5% were diabetics, compared to a nearly 50% rate for Hispanics over age 65.
Participants were given blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes tests and had their body mass and waist circumference measured. They also underwent MRI brain scans over the course of a decade, the first one about seven years after the initial risk factor exam.
Dr. Raj Shah, medical director of the Rush Memory Clinic in Chicago comments:
"I do think it's an important study and has practical importance in confirming there are things we can do in middle age that can have effects 10, 20 and 30 years down the line to improve cognitive health. It may seem we're talking about things that are somewhat common knowledge, but really, we always hypothesize these things could happen, but to show they actually do in a study is very important."
DeCarli noted that the effects of the risk factors studied are likely to be even more compelling in the general population, since study participants were largely healthy individuals with normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels and a low diabetes rate.
Catherine Roe, an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis finalized:
"We know smoking and being overweight are bad for other parts of your health," Roe said. "This is just one more reason to get these things under control."
It has also been found that drinking heavy amounts of alcohol over a long period of time may decrease brain volume.
A study that involved MRI scans of 1,839 people from the Framingham Offspring study, ages 34 to 88, who were classified as non-drinkers, former drinkers, low drinkers (one to seven drinks per week), moderate drinkers (eight to 14 drinks per week), or high drinkers (more than 14 drinks per week). MRI scans were performed and used to measure brain volume, which can be thought of as a measure of brain aging.
The study found the more alcohol people drink on a regular basis, the lower their brain volume.
Carol Ann Paul, MS, of Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA commented on this:
"Research has shown that there is a beneficial effect of alcohol in reducing incidence of cardiovascular disease in people who consume low to moderate amounts of alcohol. However, this study found that greater alcohol consumption was negatively correlated with brain volume."
This cross sectional study found people who had more than 14 drinks per week had an average 1.6% reduction in the ratio of brain volume to skull size compared to people who didn't drink. In other words, brain volume decreased .25% on average for every increase in drinking category (i.e. non-drinkers, former drinkers, low drinkers, moderate drinkers, or high drinkers).
Written by Sy Kraft