UCLA researchers have been studying the specifics of a broader concept that vascular health and stroke risk affect cognition independent of dementia processes.

The published study, titled “Vascular Risk and FDDNP-PET Influence Cognitive Performance,” outlines early detection of cognitive decline by use of stroke test to measure vascular health and brain imaging tools to assess plaques and tangles.

This cross-sectional study involved a community sample of volunteers that were completely healthy or could sense mild cognitive decline; the average age of the sample was above 60 years. Participants went through memory and physical health assessments to measure stroke risk and brain imaging to look for plaque and tangle load, the main neuropathology underlying Alzheimer’s disease.

Although this topic has been researched before, this particular study confirmed that both plaque and tangle load contribute to degenerative processes even though they are not necessarily tied together or dependent of each other.

Dr. David Merrill, author on the study and assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, explained that physical health and cognition are strongly linked.

“You can independently improve your cognition through improving your physical health. In particular, targeting things that can help your vascular health, like controlling your blood pressure, can help your cognition and staying active can help your heart health, which can then help your brain health because what is good for the heart turns out to be good for the brain,” Merrill said.

Before the brain imaging tool, plaques and tangles could only be tested by an autopsy after a person’s death. This tool allows for early detection to help patients prevent degenerative processes by changing their lifestyles. Things like exercising, controlling weight, measuring body mass index and quitting smoking are modifiable factors for increased vascular health. But there are still non-modifiable factors, like age, gender and genetics that will still affect the patient.

Gary Small, senior author, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences said, “Age is the greatest risk factor, so it is very rare for people under age 60 to get Alzheimer’s. The risk for 65 and older is about 10 percent and for 85 and older is increased to 45 percent.”

The future of this study lies in longitudinal studies with stroke survivors or people that have greater stroke risk.



A version of this article appeared on page 5 of April 16th, 2013’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.