What does head size have to do with Alzheimer’s?

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According to a new study published in the July 13 issue of the journal Neurology, Alzheimer’s patients with larger heads may experience a slower progression of cognitive decline symptoms, possibly because they have more of what researchers call “brain reserve” — or the ability to adjust to changes within the brain. The theory is based on an analysis of 270 Alzheimer’s patients who completed tests of memory and cognitive skills, and also underwent MRI scans and head measurements. (Head size is measured by circumference.) The researchers found that, even in patients who had the same amount of brain cell death due to the disease, those with bigger heads tended to perform better on the memory and reasoning tests.

The team of researchers, led by Dr. Robert Perneczky of Germany’s Technical University of Munich, found that, specifically, for every 1% of brain cell death, each additional centimeter of head circumference was associated with a 6% improvement in cognitive performance. The findings contribute to the notion that individual brain reserve can help people withstand the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s, and also suggest the importance of optimizing the development of brain reserve in childhood, Perneczky suggests. In a statement about the findings, he remarked that:

“Our findings also underline the importance of optimal brain development early in life, since the brain reaches 93 percent of its final size at age six… Improving prenatal and early life conditions could significantly increase brain reserve, which could have an impact on the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or the severity of symptoms of the disease.”

Read a Health Day report on the findings here