A new long-term study says that a simple and common scan can show if someone is at increased risk of developing dementia later in life.
A long-term study found that a standard bone density scan can also detect calcified plaque build-up in the abdominal aorta, indicating whether someone is at elevated risk of getting dementia.
People over the age of 80 are increasingly likely to develop late-life dementia.
According to a new long-term study, a simple and routine scan can tell whether or not an individual has a higher risk of having the condition later in life.
Late-life dementia is caused by disorders that harm brain cells and narrow brain blood channels.
Researchers at Edith Cowan University (ECU) have found an important link between vascular health and dementia in old age.
This link is the hardening of plaques in the abdominal aorta, which is the largest artery in the body and carries oxygenated blood from the heart to the organs in the abdomen and the lower legs.
Abdominal aortic calcification, also known as AAC, is a calcium buildup that can be very helpful in predicting the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke.
But now, scientists have discovered that it is also a trustworthy indicator of dementia in old age.
Researchers from the University of Western Australia, University of Minnesota, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, the Marcus Institute for Aging Research, Hebrew SeniorLife, and Harvard Medical School were part of the international team, which was led by ECU’s Nutrition and Health Innovation Institute and Centre for Precision Health.
They looked at 968 women’s AAC results from the late 1990s and then followed their health over more than 15 years.
They discovered that one in every two older women had medium to high levels of AAC, and these women were twice as likely to be hospitalized or die from late-life dementia – regardless of other cardiovascular or genetic variables.
Professor Simon Laws, director of the Centre for Precision Health, stated that AAC could detect dementia risk earlier in people’s lives, which could be critical in preventing the disease.
“There’s an adage in dementia research that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” he added.
According to him, the findings of “this study reaffirms this link and further” add “to our understanding of late-onset dementia risk and potential preventative strategies.
“What’s come to light is the importance of modifying risk factors such as diet and physical activity in preventing dementia: you need to intervene early and hopefully this study allows for the earliest possible change and the greatest impact.
“AAC is important as it was able to identify dementia risk in people who don’t have the major genetic risk factor present in 50 per cent of people who develop Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.”
A quick test
Conveniently, lateral spine scans using bone density equipment can quickly identify AAC.
These devices are widespread; in Australia alone, some 600,000 osteoporosis screenings involving bone density are conducted annually.
When people have standard bone density examinations, ECU Associate Professor and National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow Joshua Lewis added, an additional scan collecting lateral spine images can be undertaken.
When compared to X-rays or CT scans, Professor Lewis noted that these scans are less invasive, more affordable, and expose people to much less radiation.
“We know the causes of AAC go beyond traditional cardiovascular risk factors and many of these causes overlap with late-life dementia risk factors,” they added.
“At ECU we’re also working with the computer science team automating the AAC assessments, which will make the process a lot quicker and easier rather than needing a trained imaging expert to read the scans.”
It suggests that these scans could be an affordable, quick, and reliable way to test a large number of vulnerable older Australians for a higher risk of developing dementia in later life.
Professor Lewis said that bringing up dementia risk in conversations about cardiovascular health could help people make the changes they need to make in their lives.
“I think the next step is telling people about their AAC and late-life dementia risk to see if this can motivate healthy diet and lifestyle behaviour changes.”
Professor Garry Jennings AO, the chief medical advisor for the Heart Foundation, appreciated the study.
According to Professor Jennings, vascular dementia is a disability that affects older people more frequently.
“It is often associated with heart disease or risk factors such as hypertension earlier in life,” he said, adding, “Josh’s study is an excellent example of benefits arising from the Heart Foundation’s Future Leadership funding program.”
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