Common bone density scan can predict later-life dementia risk

2022-06-27

Researchers can now assess a person’s risk of developing late-life dementia using data from a common type of bone density scan. The long-term study revealed calcification within the abdominal aorta can double one’s risk of developing dementia over the age of 80.

The new study analyzed data from a long-term research project called The Perth Longitudinal Study of Aging Women. The project initially was focused on understanding how calcium supplements can prevent osteoporotic fractures, but it included well over 10 years of valuable follow-up health data.

A team of researchers from Australia’s Edith Cowan University re-examined data from that study, hypothesizing that certain biomarkers gathered from bone density scans could be used to predict the onset of dementia up to 15 years later. The focus was on a biomarker called abdominal aortic calcification (AAC), a build-up of calcium in the body’s largest artery. AAC is currently used to predict a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Looking at health records from nearly 1,000 women, the researchers found those subjects with medium to high AAC in their mid-70s were twice as likely to be hospitalized or die from dementia over the following 15 years.

It’s generally very quick and easy to capture these scans and they are less-invasive, cheaper and miniscule in radiation exposure compared to X-rays or CT scans

One of the study’s authors, Joshua Lewis, said bone density scans are incredibly common tests for senior citizens, with more than half a million conducted each year in Australia alone. The machines are widely available, meaning these tests could be easily incorporated into current health screening programs.

“It’s generally very quick and easy to capture these scans and they are less-invasive, cheaper and miniscule in radiation exposure compared to X-rays or CT scans,” said Lewis. “It means these scans may be a cheap, rapid and safe way to screen a large number of susceptible older Australians for higher late-life dementia risk.”

The study also indicates there to be a significant overlap in the relationship between cardiovascular health and brain health. Simon Laws, another researcher working on the project, said identifying AAC as a risk factor in late-life dementia opens the door to lifestyle and dietary interventions that could help people prevent cognitive decline in their 80s.

“There’s an adage in dementia research that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” Laws said. “What’s come to light is the importance of modifying risk factors such as diet and physical activity in preventing dementia: you need to intervene early and hopefully this study allows for the earliest possible change and the greatest impact.”

More research will be needed to better understand the mechanisms that could link AAC and later-life dementia. It’s also unclear whether the correlation holds as strongly for men as it does women.

Nevertheless, in the short-term these findings offers doctors and patients a novel way to use data from a common bone scan in assessing one’s risk of developing dementia in the subsequent years.

The new study was published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health.

New Atlas, 27 June 2022
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