According to a recent study from November 2017, people who show signs of inflammation in middle age are more likely to suffer from brain shrinkage later in life, a possible precursor to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The findings in the journal, Neurology, are the latest to uncover an association between dementia and inflammation, in which the body’s immune cells overreact to things like smoking, stress, illness or poor diet.
“These results suggest that inflammation in mid-life may be an early contributor to the brain changes that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” said study author Keenan Walker of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The findings are significant since the processes that lead to brain cell loss begin long before people experience any symptoms.
Researchers studied 1,633 people with an average age of 53. Their blood levels were tested for five markers of inflammation — not in any specific part of the body but rather throughout it — including white blood cell count. An average of 24 years later, participants took a memory test and underwent brain scans.
Those who had higher levels of inflammation at midlife on three or more biomarkers had an average five percent lower brain volume in the hippocampus and other areas associated with Alzheimer’s disease. According to researchers, the effect was similar to having one copy of a gene that predisposes people to Alzheimer’s.
People with higher inflammation also performed slightly worse on a memory test, remembering on average five of 10 words they were asked to recall, compared to 5.5 in the non-inflammation group.
While the study was large and rigorously conducted, it did not study whether patients went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, only that some showed signs of brain shrinkage and memory loss.
The director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, noted that the findings are commensurate with a growing body of research that points to inflammation and problems with the immune system playing a role in the development of dementia.
While the study may not conclusively show that brain shrinkage is due to inflammation, it does highlight the importance of taking care of your cognitive health throughout your life, particularly in middle age by eating a healthy balanced diet, getting regular exercise and managing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.