Smoking and having diabetes are two modifiable risk factors that have been linked with build-up of calcium in the brain in a Dutch study.
Hippocampal calcification is a build up of calcium in the hippocampus, an important area of the brain responsible for memory. Previous research suggests that hippocampal calcification may contribute to a greater risk of dementia. Dementia, which causes memory problems, is a possible complication of diabetes.
The team hypothethised that a build-up of calcium (calcification) may affect blood flow to the hippocampus, leading to cells in the hippocampus dying (atrophying). They were keen to study which factors are associated with hippocampal calcification and with impaired thinking skills (cognitive function).
Study lead author, Dr Esther de Brouwer, a geriatrician at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands, said: “We know that calcifications in the hippocampus are common, especially with increasing age. However, we did not know if calcifications in the hippocampus related to cognitive function.”
Using a brain CT scan, the researchers were able to assess changes in the hippocampus in people who had high blood pressure, diabetes and smoked.
The results of cognitive tests and CT scans of 1,991 people were analysed. The average age of the participants was 78 years. 380 participants, representing 19 per cent of those taking part, showed hippocampal calcification. Older age, diabetes and smoking were associated with an increased risk of hippocampal calcifications on CT scans.
Dr de Brouwer said: “We do think that smoking and diabetes are risk factors. In a recent histopathology study, hippocampal calcifications were found to be a manifestation of vascular disease. It is well known that smoking and diabetes are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It is, therefore, likely that smoking and diabetes are risk factors for hippocampal calcifications.”
Whilst the team found diabetes and smoking to be risk factors, both of these factors are modifiable. Quitting smoking, or not smoking to begin with, and gaining good control of diabetes, may each help reduce the risks of memory problems and dementia.
The study, however, did not review the effects of quitting smoking or improving control of diabetes and therefore more research will be needed to confirm whether those changes help to make a significant difference.
The findings of the study have been published in the Radiology journal.

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