White Matter Hyperintensities and Hippocampal Atrophy in Relation to Cognition: The 90+ Study

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2019 Sep;67(9):1827-1834. doi: 10.1111/jgs.15990. Epub 2019 Jun 6.


Objectives: To study the interactive effect of white matter hyperintensities (WMH) and hippocampal atrophy on cognition in the oldest old.

Design: Ongoing longitudinal study.

Setting: In Southern California, brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were conducted between May 2014 and December 2017.

Participants: Individuals from The 90+ Study with a valid brain MRI scan (N = 141; 94 cognitively normal and 47 with cognitive impairment).

Measurements: Cognitive testing was performed every 6 months with a mean follow-up of 2 years and included these tests: Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), modified MMSE (3MS), California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) immediate recall over four trials and delayed recall, Digit Span Backward, Animal Fluency, and Trail Making Test (TMT) A, B, and C. We used one linear mixed model for each cognitive test to study the baseline and longitudinal association of WMH and hippocampal volume (HV) with cognition. Models were adjusted for age, sex, and education.

Results: Mean age was 94.3 years (standard deviation [SD] = 3.2 y). At baseline, higher WMH volumes were associated with worse scores on the 3MS, CVLT immediate and delayed recall, and TMT B. Lower HVs were associated with worse baseline scores on all cognitive tests, except for the Digit Span Backward. Longitudinally, higher WMH and lower HVs were associated with faster decline in the 3MS and MMSE, and lower HV was also associated with faster decline in the CVLT immediate recall. No association was observed between WMH and HV and no interaction between WMH and HV in their association with baseline cognition or cognitive decline.

Conclusion: We show that WMH and hippocampal atrophy have an independent, negative effect on cognition that make these biomarkers relevant to evaluate in the diagnostic work-up of the oldest-old individuals with cognitive complaints. However, the predictive value of WMH for cognitive decline seems to be less evident in the oldest-old compared with a younger group of older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 67:1827-1834, 2019.

Keywords: cognitive functioning; hippocampal atrophy; oldest-old; white matter hyperintensities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Atrophy
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Cognition*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / pathology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Organ Size
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • White Matter / pathology*