Sometimes the answers to life’s biggest questions are found in some of the unlikeliest of places. Researchers have been working for years to try to discover what factors influence and person’s risk for dementia and how to decrease that risk and prevent the disease from occurring. And now a team of scientists believes they may have found a key risk factor that they can target to try to improve prevention and treatment measures.
And the new discover lies…in your neck? Yes, you read that right.
In a study of over 3,000 people, researchers led by University College London (UCL) did a five-minute ultrasound scan of the participants’ necks to monitor their blood vessels. They then followed this group of people for 15 years to see who later developed signs of cognitive decline and dementia and who did not.
The results showed that people who had the most “intense pulses” in their blood vessels (the top 25 percent) were also the most likely to suffer from increased cognitive decline down the road than their peers with less intense pulses in their blood vessels. The high intensity of their blood pulses was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood of cognitive decline over the course of the study, equivalent to roughly a year and a half’s worth of extra decline.
Researchers believe these results speak to the delicate nature of the blood vessels of the brain. They think pulses of blood that are too intense traveling up through the neck may be damaging the tiny blood vessels of the brain, even causing minor bleeds known as “mini-strokes.” And over time, these pulses may influence changes in the overall structure of the brain’s network of blood vessels.
The team now plans to use MRI scans to determine whether people in the study with intense pulses also show structural and functional changes in the brain that would explain their increased risk of cognitive decline.
“What we do know is that the blood supply in the brain is incredibly important,” says Dr. Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, “and that maintaining a healthy heart and blood pressure is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia.”
Of course, not everyone who had strong impulses in their scans went on to develop dementia, or even increased cognitive decline. And there are many without these intense pulses that will go on to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But cognitive decline is often one of the first signs of dementia, and we may be able to use this new information about it to help detect the issue earlier and do more to treat or prevent it.
“Dementia is the end result of decades of damage, so by the time people get dementia, it’s too late to do anything, says Dr. Scott Chiesa, from UCL. “What we’re trying to say is you need to get in as early as possible, identify a way to see who’s actually progressing towards possibly getting dementia and target them.”
The team hopes that this may be a new avenue they can utilize to create better preventative methods and treatments for dementia. For now, it at least functions as a predictive measure, which could warn patients in advance that they need to be living healthier lifestyles in an attempt to ward off the disease.
You can help decrease your risk of developing dementia by eating healthy, exercising regularly, controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, and not smoking.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?