Background: White-matter hyperintensities are commonly found on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of elderly people with or without dementia. Studies of the relation between severity of white-matter hyperintensities and cognitive impairment have had conflicting results. We undertook a longitudinal study of age-related decline in intellectual function and MRI at age 80 years.
Methods: From a cohort of 698 people born in 1914 and living in seven municipalities in Denmark, 68 healthy non-demented individuals had been tested with the Wechsler adult intelligence scale (WAIS) at ages 50, 60, and 70, and they agreed to further WAIS testing at age 80, and cerebral MRI at age 80-82 (mean age 82.3 years). We scored separately the numbers of periventricular and deep white-matter hyperintensities.
Findings: Scores for periventricular hyperintensities in this sample included all possible degrees of severity, but no participant scored more than 75% of maximum for deep white-matter hyperintensities. Neither type was related to the WAIS IQs of the 80-year assessment, but both were significantly associated with decline in performance IQ from age 50 to age 80 years (bivariate correlation coefficients 0.32, p=0.0087, and 0.28, p=0.0227, respectively). An analysis based on two WAIS subtests showed that the association between white-matter hyperintensities and cognitive impairment was significant only for cognitive decline in the decade 70-80 years.
Interpretation: Both periventricular and deep white-matter hyperintensities are related to decline in intelligence but, in healthy octogenarians, the cumulative effect of these features alone explains only a small part of the large differences among individuals in age-related decline in intelligence. Interpretation of the presence and severity of white-matter hyperintensities in a diagnostic context must be done cautiously.