Landmark study sheds light on how our brains age

October 22, 2018 by Kathryn Powley, University of Melbourne
Credit: University of Melbourne

Two studies from a landmark 20-year Melbourne research project have shed more light on how the brain ages and what can affect the process. The results have led experts to encourage women to watch their cholesterol and blood pressure.

Two studies from a landmark 20-year Melbourne research project have shed more light on how the ages and what can affect the process. The results have led experts to encourage women to watch their cholesterol and .

Both studies were published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behaviour. In the first, a person's brain volume (size) at the age of 60 predicted their memory at 70.

In this study, an MRI scan at 60 could identify those at risk of memory decline at 70, and this is supported by other international research that has identified a link between brain shrinkage and cognitive decline.

The study involved the University of Melbourne's radiology and medicine departments, Australian Catholic University's Institute for Health and Ageing and Austin Health's Aged Care Services Department.

Researchers used subjects from the population-based Women's Healthy Ageing Project, which has run at the University of Melbourne since the early 1990s. It is the first time Australian women's brain pathology has been measured alongside cognition over decades.

Sixty women had their first 3T MRI scan around the age of 59, of which 40 completed follow-up cognitive assessments over a decade. Of the 40, 23 had follow-up MRI scans.

The follow-up scans indicated that in addition to the expected age-related atrophy rate (breakdown of brain tissue), the study participants who had smaller regions of grey matter 10 years earlier were more likely to have increased rates of cognitive decline.

"This study suggests useful neuroimaging biomarkers for the prediction of cognitive decline in healthy older women," the researchers found.

The second study examined 135 Women's Healthy Ageing Project participants and found high cardiovascular risk in midlife to late life meant a higher likelihood of vascular brain damage aged over 60.

High vascular risk includes high cholesterol, low levels of the 'good cholesterol' HDL, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking. These risks generally worsen with age.

Researchers looked at Cerebral White Matter Hyperintensity (WMH) lesions that have been identified as cerebrovascular (brain blood vessel disease) markers and are associated with increased cognitive impairment risk.

They investigated the relationship between midlife and late life WMH volumes two decades later, and their association with cognitive performance.

"These findings suggest intervention strategies that target major cardiovascular risk factors at midlife might be effective in reducing the development of WMH lesions and thus late life ," the researchers found.

Study co-author Professor Cassandra Szoeke said this was the first time more than 20 years of information about Australian women had been used in this way. She said researchers looked inside the live brain using imaging data to see what impact different factors had over that time on actual brain pathology changes as well as brain function.

"In this study we showed that those women with WMH had worse cognition – the type that helps you plan, organise and get tasks done," Professor Szoeke said.

"To help reduce these risks, people should take care of their good cholesterol and blood pressure with healthy diets, activity and annual health checks."

Explore further: AHA: no direct link between preeclampsia and cognitive impairment, study finds

More information: Rowa Aljondi et al. A decade of changes in brain volume and cognition, Brain Imaging and Behavior (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s11682-018-9887-z

Rowa Aljondi et al. The effect of midlife cardiovascular risk factors on white matter hyperintensity volume and cognition two decades later in normal ageing women, Brain Imaging and Behavior (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s11682-018-9970-5

Related Stories

AHA: no direct link between preeclampsia and cognitive impairment, study finds

October 17, 2018
While preeclampsia puts women at greater risk for stroke and high blood pressure following childbirth, a new study found that the pregnancy-related condition may not predispose them to significant cognitive impairment later ...

Pre-eclampsia linked to an increased risk of dementia later in life

October 17, 2018
Pre-eclampsia is associated with an increased risk of later dementia, particularly vascular dementia, caused by reduced blood supply to the brain due to diseased blood vessels, finds a large study published by The BMJ today.

Research examines mechanisms behind cognitive decline in type 2 diabetes

September 19, 2018
Type 2 diabetes has been linked with an increased risk of cognitive dysfunction and dementia, but the underlying mechanisms are uncertain. In a new Diabetic Medicine study, imaging tests revealed that changes in white matter ...

Regular exercise protects against cognitive decline in later years

June 8, 2016
Regular exercise in middle age is the best lifestyle change a person can make to prevent cognitive decline in the later years, a landmark 20-year study has found.

Vascular risk interacts with amyloid levels to increase age-related cognitive decline

May 21, 2018
Risk factors for heart disease and stroke appear to hasten the risk of cognitive decline in normal older individuals with evidence of very early Alzheimer's-disease-associated changes in the brain. Vascular risk factors increase ...

Women's wellness: Hormone therapy and Alzheimer's disease

November 9, 2017
Introducing hormone treatment for women in early stages of menopause might help decrease their risk of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Recommended for you

Newborn babies' brain responses to being touched on the face measured for the first time

November 16, 2018
A newborn baby's brain responds to being touched on the face, according to new research co-led by UCL.

Precision neuroengineering enables reproduction of complex brain-like functions in vitro

November 14, 2018
One of the most important and surprising traits of the brain is its ability to dynamically reconfigure the connections to process and respond properly to stimuli. Researchers from Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan) and the ...

New brain imaging research shows that when we expect something to hurt it does, even if the stimulus isn't so painful

November 14, 2018
Expect a shot to hurt and it probably will, even if the needle poke isn't really so painful. Brace for a second shot and you'll likely flinch again, even though—second time around—you should know better.

A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in newborns

November 14, 2018
A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in babies up to two years earlier than current methods.

Photoacoustic imaging may help doctors detect ovarian tumors earlier

November 14, 2018
Ovarian cancer claims the lives of more than 14,000 in the U.S. each year, ranking fifth among cancer deaths in women. A multidisciplinary team at Washington University in St. Louis has found an innovative way to use sound ...

New clues to the origin and progression of multiple sclerosis

November 13, 2018
Mapping of a certain group of cells, known as oligodendrocytes, in the central nervous system of a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS), shows that they might have a significant role in the development of the disease. The ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.