Carotid atherosclerosis predicts lower cognitive test results: a 7-year follow-up study of 4,371 stroke-free subjects - the Tromsø study

Kjell Arne Arntzen, Henrik Schirmer, Stein Harald Johnsen, Tom Wilsgaard, Ellisiv B Mathiesen
Cerebrovascular Diseases 2012, 33 (2): 159-65

BACKGROUND: Carotid artery atherosclerosis is a major risk factor for stroke and subsequent cognitive impairment. Prospective population studies have shown associations between carotid intima-media thickness (IMT) and stenosis and cognitive decline and dementia in elderly stroke-free persons, whereas results in the middle-aged are conflicting.

METHODS: In this prospective population-based study, 4,371 stroke-free middle-aged participants underwent carotid ultrasound examination and assessment of vascular risk factors at baseline and were tested for cognitive function 7 years later. Associations between IMT, number of plaques and total plaque area and cognitive test scores on verbal memory test, digit symbol-coding test and tapping test were assessed in linear regression models.

RESULTS: In the multivariable analyses adjusted for sex, age, education, depression and vascular risk factors, the presence of plaques was significantly associated with lower test scores on the verbal memory test (p = 0.01) and on the digit symbol-coding test (p = 0.03). The number of plaques (p = 0.01) and the total plaque area (p = 0.02) were associated with lower scores on the verbal memory test. No significant association was seen between common carotid artery IMT and cognitive test scores. The tapping test was not associated with the carotid ultrasound variables.

CONCLUSIONS: In this middle-aged general population, subclinical carotid atherosclerosis measured as the presence of plaques, number of plaques and total plaque area were independent long-term predictors of lower cognitive test scores.

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