Harvard Health Letter

Chronic inflammation in midlife linked to brain decline later

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You’ve probably heard about tests to measure chemicals in the blood that indicate chronic inflammation in the body. They are sometimes used to estimate risk for heart disease. But what about using these kinds of biomarkers to gauge your risk for declining brain health? A study published Nov. 1, 2017, in Neurology found that having certain inflammatory markers in midlife was associated with brain shrinkage and poor memory in older age.

Researchers measured five inflammation biomarkers in about 1,600 middle-aged people and gave them brain scans and a memory test about 25 years later. Compared with people with no elevated inflammation markers, people with high levels of three or more biomarkers scored lower on the memory test and had about 5% shrinkage in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study is only observational and doesn’t prove that inflammation caused brain shrinkage or poor memory. But many studies have noted that people with dementia have chronic inflammation; this study suggests a change over time. The takeaway: Many aspects of lifestyle contribute to chronic inflammation, including stress, poor diet, being overweight, and not exercising. Addressing even one of these areas is a good start to better health.

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