Five-minute neck scans can predict a person's risk of dementia a full decade before symptoms appear, the researchers said.
The test, which analyzes the pulse of blood vessels in the neck, could be part of routine testing for cognitive decline, according to research by scientists at University College London (UCL), who presented their work on Sunday at the American Heart Association's annual scientific conference.
A group of nearly 3,200 patients, aged 58-74 years, had ultrasound in their neck in 2002, before their cognitive function was monitored for up to 14 years, from 2002 to 2016.
People with the most intense beats, which point to greater and more irregular blood flow, up to 50 percent more likely to experience cognitive function decline, the study found, because the power with blood flowing to their brain causes damage to brain tissue. blood vessel.
Pulses are stronger when arteries near the heart are tired – usually by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and drug use – and can no longer "hold" blood flow from the heart.
"If you can detect it [the risk] in people in middle age, it really encourages people to change their lifestyle, "said Dr. Scott Chiesa, post-doctoral researcher at UCL.
"What is good for arteries is good for the brain," he added in a summary of his findings. "Dementia is not an inevitable cause of aging. How you live your life … has a real impact on how quickly your condition can decline. "
If the findings are confirmed by larger studies, they can greatly improve the ability to detect dementia in middle age.
And the scan will be "well prepared for routine testing," according to Chiesa. "Very easy to do, and very fast to do."
When healthy, the arteries around the heart can regulate blood pumped from the organ, ensuring it flows smoothly and at a constant rate to the brain.
But damage to the arteries means that blood flow is more aggressive and irregular through the vessels and into the brain, which can damage blood vessel tissue and cells. Over time, researchers believe this causes more frequent cognitive decline in participants in the study.
"What we know is that blood supply in the brain is very important, and that maintaining heart health and blood pressure is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia," Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, was not involved in research.
Vascular dementia is directly caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, and this can also play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease, according to the study. Both of these conditions constitute the majority of dementia cases.
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe symptoms associated with loss of brain function. Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia constitute most of the cases.
About 50 million people suffer from dementia worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, with the number projected to increase to 152 million by 2050.
In the United States, this condition is the sixth largest cause of death among all adults, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while in the UK it has taken over heart disease as the leading cause of death, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The research findings have been met with careful optimism by the dementia organization.
"Getting a diagnosis of dementia can be time-consuming and quite frustrating for many people, so it promises that indicators of cognitive decline that were previously under development," said Paul Edwards, Director of Clinical Services in Dementia UK.
But he added that focus should also be given to people with dementia after their diagnosis, saying: "Elephants in the room are a lack of support for people and their families after they get a diagnosis of dementia."
There is currently no cure for dementia, although the drug can be used to temporarily treat symptoms.
"Often, a diagnosis is made and then people are sent home without information, there is no follow-up appointment and there is no indication of what will happen next."
Previous research this year has linked the risk of dementia with lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption and fitness levels, but the impact remains incurable.
Further research is needed to determine whether neck scans should be part of routine testing for dementia.
"Although this finding is interesting, because the complete data from this study have not been published, it is difficult to assess how useful this type of scan is," Routledge said.
Routledge added that current evidence shows that not smoking, consuming only alcohol within the recommended limits, staying active, monitoring cholesterol levels and eating a balanced diet can all help with heart and brain health.
Written by Rob Picheta for CNN.
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