A five-minute scan of blood vessels in the neck during mid-life could become part of future dementia screening, researchers have suggested.
The scan, which predicts cognitive decline 10 years before symptons appear, could become part of routine screening for people at risk of developing the condition.
The research was led by University College London (UCL) and is being presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago.
Researchers said that as the heart beats, it generates a physical pulse that travels around the body.
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Healthy, elastic vessels near the heart usually diminish the energy carried by this pulse by cushioning each heartbeat, preventing the pulse from reaching delicate blood vessels elsewhere in the body.
Factors like ageing and high blood pressure cause stiffening of these blood vessels, however, and may diminish their protective effect.
As a result, a progressively stronger pulse can travel deep into the fragile vessels which supply the brain.
Over time, this can cause damage to the small vessels of the brain, structural changes in the brain's blood vessel network and minor bleeds known as mini strokes, which all may contribute to the development of dementia.
Over 3,000 middle-aged volunteers
The study saw the team analyse a group of 3,191 middle-aged volunteers who were given an ultrasound in 2002, which measured the intensity of the pulse travelling towards their brain.
Over the next 15 years, they monitored the participant's memory and problem-solving ability.
Participants with the highest intensity pulse (top 25%) at the beginning of the study were around 50% more likely to exhibit accelerated cognitive decline over the next decade compared to the rest of the participants.
This difference was present even after adjustments for possible confounding factors, such as age, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and diabetes, and whether participants had other heart conditions.
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Researchers said cognitive decline is a noticeable and measurable reduction in cognitive abilities including memory, language, thinking and judgment skills.
Cognitive decline is often one of the first signs of dementia, but not everyone who shows signs of cognitive decline will go on to develop dementia.
Dr Scott Chiesa, post-doctoral researcher at UCL, said: "These findings demonstrate the first direct link between the intensity of the pulse transmitted towards the brain with every heartbeat and future impairments in cognitive function.
"It's therefore an easily measurable and potentially treatable cause of cognitive decline in middle-aged adults which can be spotted well in advance."