How to Avoid Brain Shrinkage

Cognitive capabilities decline caused by lifestyle health issues

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) We all know that smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are at the root of more serious problems - heart disease and cancer. Now we can add brain shrinkage to the list.

A recently published study finds that smoking and other health issues related to lifestyle go beyond causing physical damage and can drain the brain...literally!

These conditions harm the brain in different ways, but the results are the same - problems in middle age with thinking, remembering, planning and making decisions.

"Stop smoking, eat healthy and lose weight to protect your mind - and body."

Participants included 1,352 people from the Framingham Offspring Study who did not have dementia. The average age was 54.

Researchers measured body mass and waist circumference of all participants, who also had blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes tests. These exams provided an initial risk factor assessment of all participants at the beginning of the study.

Participants had MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans over the period of a decade, starting at seven years after the initial assessment. Here are the findings:

High blood pressure

  • Led to small areas of brain damage
  • Damage occurred faster than in people with normal blood pressure readings
  • Tests scores worsened more quickly in areas of executive function (connecting past with present), planning and decision making


  • Caused a loss of brain volume in the hippocampus which controls short- and long-term memory and the ability to navigate in space (spatial navigation)
  • Rate of loss was faster in people with diabetes than in people without the disease


  • Caused loss of overall brain volume
  • The hippocampus (memory, spatial) was particularly affected
  • Losses occurred at faster rates than in nonsmokers


  • Placed people in the top 25 percent of those who saw a faster rate of decline in executive function scores
  • A high waist-to-hip ratio also placed people in the top quarter of those who lost brain volume faster

Study author, Charles DeCarli, M.D., of the University of California at Davis in Sacramento and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, says that identifying these risk factors in middle age could be used to screen those at-risk of developing dementia.

He adds that this information could also encourage people to make important lifestyle changes.

This research was pubished in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 3, 2011
Last Updated:
August 5, 2011