Midlife health proves crucial to preventing brain shrinkage in old age

Midlife health has emerged as one of the strongest predictors of dementia risk.

A person’s 40s is the ideal time to improve the health of the vascular system and prevent cognitive decline, the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health has found.

Reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight has the largest impact on later brain health.

Vascular dementia is the second most cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s, accounting for about 20 per cent of cases, or 50 new Australians diagnosed every day.

Wear and tear in the arteries caused by strokes or high blood pressure, which impairs blood flow to the brain, can damage the area responsible for learning, memory and language.

Researchers studied almost 3000 adults from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed residents of the Massachusetts town since 1948.

They compared vascular health risk to brain volume: shrinkage is a measure of overall cell death and brain health.

Lead researcher Dr Matthew Pase said they found that at every age a high risk for poor vascular health was associated with lower brain volume.

But the link was strongest when people were younger. Brain shrinkage was evident as young as age 45, and was most pronounced in women.

“We think of dementia as a disease of old age, but Alzheimer’s has a 30-year lag time before symptoms appear,” Dr Pase said.

“To have maximal impact, we need to take ownership earlier.”

Analysis of 40 years of health records of 7800 adults also found a vascular health score at age 45 was more accurate than a later assessment in predicting what the brain would look like in old age.

And addressing one risk factor wasn’t enough: total vascular health improvement was needed.

The findings were published in the journal Neurology.

The head of Florey’s dementia research, Associate Professor Amy Brodtmann, said the vascular dementia hypothesis had gained momentum after the The Lancet identified half of the top 10 dementia risks factors — or 12 per cent of global dementia cases — related to vascular health. Associate Professor Amy Brodtmann says:

“There has been a somewhat fatalistic view … that the majority of dementias are genetic. But it’s just not true. The majority are caused by lifestyle factors.”

“It’s a public health message that we’re not doing properly, and midlife actually starts at 35. “Get tested for diabetes, get lean, get fit and get your blood pressure checked.”

To take part in the Florey’s Healthy Brain Study, tracking 6000 Australians from midlife to find dementia risk factors, go to healthybrainproject.org.au

Originally published as Midlife health holds key to dementia