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Associations between vascular risk factors and brain MRI indices in UK Biobank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • D M Lyall
  • Stuart Ritchie
  • Miruna Barbu
  • Laura de Nooij
  • Lianne M Reus
  • Clara Alloza
  • Emma Neilson
  • Helen L. Alderson
  • Stuart Hunter
  • David Liewald
  • H. C. Whalley
  • Jill P. Pell
  • Elliot M Tucker-Drob
  • Catharine Gale

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Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Heart Journal
Early online date11 Mar 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Mar 2019


Several factors are known to increase risk for cerebrovascular disease and dementia, but there is limited evidence on associations between multiple vascular risk factors (VRFs) and detailed aspects of brain macro- and microstructure in large community-dwelling populations across middle- and older age.

Methods and Results
Associations between VRFs (smoking, hypertension, pulse pressure, diabetes, hypercholersterolaemia, BMI, and waist-hip ratio) and brain structural and diffusion MRI markers were examined in UK Biobank (N = 9722, age range 44-79 years). A larger number of VRFs was associated with greater brain atrophy, lower grey matter volume, and poorer white matter health. Effect sizes were small (brain structural R2 ≤ 1.8%). Higher aggregate vascular risk was related to multiple regional MRI hallmarks associated with dementia risk: lower frontal and temporal cortical volumes, lower subcortical volumes, higher white matter hyperintensity volumes, and poorer white matter microstructure in association and thalamic pathways. Smoking pack years, hypertension and diabetes showed the most consistent associations across all brain measures. Hypercholesterolaemia was not uniquely associated with any MRI marker.

Higher levels of VRFs were associated with poorer brain health across grey and white matter macro- and microstructure. Effects are mainly additive, converging upon frontal and temporal cortex, subcortical structures, and specific classes of white matter fibres. Though effect sizes were small, these results emphasise the vulnerability of brain health to vascular factors even in relatively healthy middle and older age, and the potential to partly ameliorate cognitive decline by addressing these malleable risk factors.

    Research areas

  • vascular risk, brain, MRI, diffusion, white matter, cortex

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