Objective: To test the hypotheses 1) that whole-brain volume decline begins in early adulthood, 2) that cross-sectional and longitudinal atrophy estimates agree in older, nondemented individuals, and 3) that longitudinal atrophy accelerates in the earliest stages of Alzheimer disease (AD).
Methods: High-resolution, high-contrast structural MRIs were obtained from 370 adults (age 18 to 97). Participants over 65 (n = 192) were characterized using the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) as either nondemented (CDR 0, n = 94) or with very mild to mild dementia of the Alzheimer type (DAT, CDR 0.5 and 1, n = 98). Of these older participants, 79 belonged to a longitudinal cohort and were imaged again a mean 1.8 years after baseline. Estimates of gray matter (nGM), white matter (nWM), and whole-brain volume (nWBV) normalized for head sizes were generated based on atlas registration and image segmentation.
Results: Hierarchical regression of nWBV estimates from nondemented individuals across the adult lifespan revealed a strong linear, moderate quadratic pattern of decline beginning in early adulthood, with later onset of nWM than nGM loss. Whole-brain volume differences were detected by age 30. The cross-sectional atrophy model overlapped with the rates measured longitudinally in older, nondemented individuals (mean decline of -0.45% per year). In those individuals with very mild DAT, atrophy rate more than doubled (-0.98% per year).
Conclusions: Nondemented individuals exhibit a slow rate of whole-brain atrophy from early in adulthood with white-matter loss beginning in middle age; in older adults, the onset of dementia of the Alzheimer type is associated with a markedly accelerated atrophy rate.