Migraines and headaches linked to more brain lesions in older adults

March, 2011

Older adults who have a history of severe headaches are more likely to have a greater number of brain lesions, but do not show greater cognitive impairment (within the study time-frame).

Lesions of the brain microvessels include white-matter hyperintensities and the much less common silent infarcts leading to loss of white-matter tissue. White-matter hyperintensities are common in the elderly, and are generally regarded as ‘normal’ (although a recent study suggested we should be less blasé about them — that ‘normal’ age-related cognitive decline reflects the presence of these small lesions). However, the degree of white-matter lesions is related to the severity of decline (including increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s), and those with hypertension or diabetes are more likely to have a high number of them.

A new study has investigated the theory that migraines might also lead to a higher number of white-matter hyperintensities. The ten-year French population study involved 780 older adults (65+; mean age 69). A fifth of the participants (21%) reported a history of severe headaches, of which 71% had migraines.

Those with severe headaches were twice as likely to have a high quantity of white-matter hyperintensities as those without headaches. However, there was no difference in cognitive performance between the groups. Those who suffered from migraines with aura (2% of the total), also showed an increased number of silent cerebral infarcts — a finding consistent with other research showing that people suffering from migraine with aura have an increased risk of cerebral infarction (or strokes). But again, no cognitive decline was observed.

The researchers make much of their failure to find cognitive impairment, but I would note that, nevertheless, the increased number of brain lesions does suggest that, further down the track, there is likely to be an effect on cognitive performance. Still, headache sufferers can take comfort in the findings, which indicate the effect is not so great that it shows up in this decade-long study.

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