School of Medicine Researchers Receive $18 Million Grant to Study Connections Between Heart Health and Cognition

August 30, 2018

The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded Wake Forest School of Medicine researchers a five-year grant worth more than $18 million to study the connections between heart health and brain health among participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).

The research will be led by Timothy Hughes, Ph.D., assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, and Kathleen Hayden, Ph.D., associate professor of social sciences and health policy, at the Wake Forest Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center along with José Luchsinger, M.D., associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

“We know that most patients with Alzheimer’s disease also have evidence of vascular disease in the brain. Now, for the first time, we will be able to examine closely the source of this vascular disease by tracking its earliest stages and determining how it relates to brain health in aging,” Hughes said. “Importantly, this study will provide us with the opportunity to look at whether heart health explains the increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias among different racial and ethnic groups.”

The researches plan to enroll approximately 3,000 MESA participants from its six study sites across the United States beginning early next year.

MESA was initiated in 1999 to study the characteristics of subclinical cardiovascular disease – disorders of the heart or blood vessels detected prior to the appearance of any clinical signs or symptoms – and the risk factors that predict progression to actual cardiovascular disease. The study, funded by the NIH’s National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, has included more than 6,500 people of European, African, Hispanic and Asian descent who were between the ages of 45 and 84 and healthy at time of enrollment.

The new project will allow the investigators to evaluate the cognitive health of roughly half of the MESA participants and examine associations between the development of cardiovascular disease over the past 15 or more years with changes in the brain over the coming years.

Hughes said the research will include obtaining images of participants’ brains to detect signs of vascular disease and the presence of toxic amyloid protein, an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. 

“This new study will also provide an excellent opportunity to assess sex differences in brain health,” Hayden said. “We know there are differences in the presentation of cardiovascular disease between men and women, and this project will allow us to examine how these differences affect cognition in later life.”