Title The heart of the matter Degree of recognition National Media name/outlet New Zealand Listener Media type Duration/Length/Size ~650 words / double page spread Country/Territory New Zealand Date 11/05/19 Description 34 LISTENER MAY 11 2019 MAY 11 2019 LISTENER
by Nicky Pellegrino
The heart of the matter.
The healthier your heart, the healthier
your brain, according to the latest
science. There is increasing evidence
to show that older people who are in
bad cardiovascular shape have a greater
chance of developing dementia. And
now we are beginning to get a clearer
picture of exactly why this is.
At the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive
Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh,
researchers have been examining the MRI scans
of thousands of people, aged between 44 and 79,
enrolled in the UK Biobank Study. This large-scale
project aims to scan the vital organs of 100,000
participants and supply researchers with a valuable
resource to increase knowledge and help improve
the health of future generations.
“I’m really interested in characterising brain
ageing,” says principal investigator Simon Cox.
“How is it that some people arrive in
their seventies having brains that
look like they could be 40 years
old, whereas others have pretty
stark levels of brain shrinkage?
What are the factors that determine
that? And how do you
end up being one of the people
who has virtually no brain change?”
What Cox has been looking at,
specifically, is the effect on the brain
of a number of factors that influence
the health of our blood vessels, such
as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity
and diabetes. These have all been
linked to complications in blood flow
to the brain.
A healthy, young brain fits neatly
white matter, which is the connective
tissue of the brain and basically its
communications system. The more risk factors a participant
had, the poorer their brain health.
Those at highest risk had about 18ml
less grey matter (Cox compares that
to a little less than a travel-sized
toothpaste tube) and one and a half
times the damage to white matter.
inside the cranial cavity, cushioned
by a layer of cerebrospinal fluid. As
we age, the cortex or outer layer of
the brain thins and its gyri (hills) and
sulci (valleys) recede to be replaced by
more spinal fluid.
Cox found shrinkage of grey
matter was greater in those with high
vascular-risk factors. Those same
people also had more damage to their
The areas affected were mainly those that have
been linked to more complex thinking skills and
that show changes as a result of dementia and
Cox stresses there are likely to be a large number
of things that affect the way our brains age.
Some we can do nothing about, such as our
genes. If you have the APOE4 allele, which is linked
to increased risk and earlier onset of Alzheimer’s,
unfortunately you are stuck with it.
“But there’s a lot of interest in malleable lifestyle
factors, the things you can do something about.”
He advocates a marginal gains approach, getting
big results from lots of small changes, as popularised
by British cycling coach Dave Brailsford, who
helped his team to victory by making hundreds of
small improvements. Maintaining healthy blood
pressure, body weight and blood sugar, and not
smoking, should be just some of the things we do
to stave off dementia.
“Because the associations were just as strong in
midlife as they were in later life, it suggests that
addressing these factors early might mitigate future
negative effects,” says Cox.
More evidence for the far-reaching benefits of
a healthy heart was provided last year by a large
French study of people aged over 65. It used
the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7
prevention strategy, which covers diet, smoking,
cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, physical
exercise and weight. Those with the best cardiovascular
scores had the lowest rates of cognitive
decline and dementia.
And, last year, US researchers working with mice
found that exercise to improve cardiovascular
fitness improves blood flow to white
matter and protects against dementia.
“There are lots of other excellent
reasons to ensure we’re in good
cardiovascular health,” says
Cox. “This is perhaps another
Producer/Author Nicky Pellegrino Persons Simon Cox