Poor heart health predicts premature brain aging – ScienceDaily

By estimating the age of people’s brains from MRI scans using machine learning, a team led by UCL researchers has identified multiple risk factors for premature brain ageing.

They found that poorer cardiovascular health at age 36 predicted higher brain age later in life, while men also tended to have older brains than women at the same age, as they report in The Lancet Healthy Longevity.

Older brain age is associated with slightly worse performance on cognitive tests and also predicts increased brain shrinkage (atrophy) over the next two years, suggesting it could be an important clinical marker for people at risk from cognitive decline or other diseases related to brain health.

Lead author Professor Jonathan Schott (UCL Dementia Research Centre, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology) said: “We found that although all the people in this study were of very similar real age, there was very wide variation in the age predicted by the computer model. We hope believe that this technique may one day be a useful tool for identifying people at risk of accelerated aging so that they can be offered early, targeted prevention strategies to improve their brain health.

Researchers applied an established MRI-based machine learning model to estimate the brain age of members of the Alzheimer Research UK-funded Insight 46 study, led by Professor Schott. Insight 46 study members were selected from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) 1946 British birth cohort. Because the participants were part of the study throughout their lives, the researchers were able to compare their current brain age with various lifetime factors.

All participants were between the ages of 69 and 72, but their estimated brain ages ranged from 46 to 93.

Researchers have been able to explain roughly a third of the variability in brain age by examining a variety of factors across the lifespan.

People with poorer cardiovascular health at age 36 or 69 had poorer brain health, as did those with increased cerebrovascular disease on MRI (related to blood flow and blood vessels in the brain). This is consistent with a previous study led by Professor Schott, which found that high blood pressure at age 36 predicted poorer brain health later in life.

The study did not identify any links between children’s cognitive function, level of education or socioeconomic status and premature brain aging.

The researchers also found that older brain age was associated with a higher concentration of neurofilament light protein (NfL) in the blood. Elevation of NfL is thought to occur due to nerve cell damage and is increasingly recognized as a useful marker of neurodegeneration.

Dr Sarah Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The Insight 46 study is helping to reveal more about the complex relationship between different factors influencing people’s brain health throughout their lives. Using machine learning, the researchers in this study uncovered yet more evidence that poorer heart health in middle age is associated with greater brain shrinkage in later life. We are extremely grateful to the dedicated group of people who have contributed a lifetime of research making this work possible.”

The study was supported by Alzheimer’s Research UK, Medical Research Council Dementia Platforms UK, Selfridges Group Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Wellcome, Brain Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Association.

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Materials provided by University College London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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