The hunt for both an effective treatment for dementia and a reliable diagnostic tool continues to absorb scientists worldwide. Now, after 15 years of testing on almost 3200 middle-aged volunteers, an international team has found a simple five-minute neck scan can predict the onset of dementia 10 years before symptoms appear.
The London Telegraph reports that the study, led by scientists from University College London (UCL), involved the use of ultrasound scanners and monitored the strength of a person’s pulse as it travelled towards the brain.
As the heart beats, the pulse reaches different parts of the body at different levels of intensity. The study found that people with the highest intensity pulses were 50 per cent more likely to experience cognitive decline over the next decade than the rest of the volunteers.
The researchers found that a more intense pulse can damage the small vessels of the brain, cause structural changes in the brain’s network of blood vessels and lead to minor bleeds known as mini-strokes, the newspaper reports.
Researchers explained that elastic vessels near the heart cushion each heartbeat and prevent damage to delicate blood vessels elsewhere in the body. However, age and high blood pressure can reduce the vessels’ elasticity resulting in a stronger pulse.
They hope that middle-age persons identified as being at risk of developing dementia could be routinely screened allowing for earlier treatments and lifestyle changes to be implemented.
Dr Scott Chiesa, from UCL, said dementia was the result of decades of damage.
“What we’re trying to say is you need to get in as early as possible, identify a way to see who’s actually progressing towards possibly getting dementia and target them,” he said.
Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation which co-funded the research, was optimistic that the neck scan could provide a new way to identify people at risk of cognitive decline long before they displayed noticeable symptoms.
“Our beating heart is what keeps us alive, but we also need healthy blood vessels to maintain a healthy blood supply to all organs, including the brain,” he said.
“What we need now is further research, for example to understand whether lifestyle changes and medicines that reduce pulse wave intensity also delay cognitive decline.”
The research is being presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago.
Dementia affects about 50 million people worldwide – and 425,000 in Australia – and is the second leading cause of death in Australia. Recent estimates show that dementia costs the healthcare system about $15 billion a year.
Would you have a neck scan to assess whether you have a heightened risk of developing dementia?