Targeting arterial stiffening ‘may provide benefits for later brain health’

Targeting arterial stiffening earlier in a person’s life could provide benefits for brain health in older age – and may help to delay the onset of dementia, researchers suggest.

The body’s largest artery, the aorta, gets stiffer with age, and a new study found that faster aortic stiffening in mid-life to older age was linked to markers of poorer brain health.

These included lower brain blood supply, reduced structural connectivity between different brain regions, and worse memory.

Scientists say medical interventions and changes of lifestyle made earlier in life could help to slow down arterial stiffening.

Dr Sana Suri, Alzheimer’s Society research fellow at the department of psychiatry, University of Oxford, said: “Our study links heart health with brain health, and gives us insights into the potential of reducing aortic stiffening to help maintain brain health in older ages.

“Reduced connectivity between different brain regions is an early marker of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and preventing these changes by reducing or slowing down the stiffening of our body’s large blood vessels may be one way to maintain brain health and memory as we grow older.”

Researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London investigated 542 older adults who received two measurements of aortic stiffness, at 64 years old and 68 years old.

Subsequent cognitive tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans assessed the size, connections and blood supply of different brain regions.

Arteries stiffen faster if someone has pre-existing heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes and other vascular diseases, researchers say.

Arterial stiffening is also progressively faster with long-term exposure to poor health behaviours and lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking or poor diets.

Scientists say it is possible to reduce arterial stiffening by medical treatments or lifestyle interventions, such as modifying the diet and exercising.

Dr Richard Oakley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society – which funded the study, said: “Dementia devastates lives, and with the number of people with dementia set to rise to one million by 2025 and more families affected than ever before, reducing our risk has never been more important.

“This Alzheimer’s Society funded study didn’t look for a link between heart health and dementia directly, but it has shed important light on a connection between the health of our blood vessels and changes in the brain that indicate brain health.

“We know that what’s good for your heart is good for your head, and it’s exciting to see research that explores this link in more detail.

“But we need even more research to understand the impact of heart health on brain health as we age, and how that affects our own dementia risk. Alzheimer’s Society is committed to funding research into dementia prevention as well as research into a cure.

“But coronavirus has hit us hard, so it’s vital the Government honours its commitment to double dementia research spending to continue research like this.”

Participants in the study, published in PLOS Medicine, were part of the Imaging subset of the Whitehall II Study, a cohort of British civil service members who have received clinical follow-ups for over 30 years.

Participants were predominantly white males and were selected if they had no clinical diagnosis of dementia.