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Motor symptoms in older adults may be linked to undetected blood vessel blockages in brain

Sept. 2, 2011

By Patricia Nicholson

New research suggests that the motor symptoms that affect many older people – such as shaking hands, slow walking speed and stooped posture – may not be normal signs of aging. Study results indicate that these symptoms may be caused by blockage of tiny blood vessels in the brain.

Blood vessels carry blood all over the body. When a blood vessel is blocked or diseased, that means a part of the body isn’t getting as much blood as it should. Without enough blood, tissues and organs don’t function properly and may become damaged. For example, ischemic strokes are caused by blocked blood vessels in the brain, and heart attacks can be caused by blocked blood vessels to the heart.

Researchers at Rush University in Chicago looked at the relationship between motor symptoms and blood vessels in the brain using data on 418 clergy members who took part in the Religious Orders Study – an ongoing neurological research program involving more than 1,100 older priests, nuns and brothers. All of the clergy members participating in the Religious Orders Study undergo neurological tests once a year, and have agreed to have a brain autopsy after death. The current research is based on 418 brain autopsies, and the neurological exams performed in the years prior to the subjects’ deaths.

Almost two-thirds of the autopsies revealed some kind of blood vessel abnormality in the brain, including blocked small blood vessels and arteriosclerosis (stiffened blood vessels). In 30 per cent of the study subjects, the researchers found microscopic blockages or lesions in people with no diagnosis of stroke or other neurological disease. In these cases, medical imaging would not have been able to detect the abnormalities, so they could never have been diagnosed while the subjects were alive.

The annual neurological exams included tests for motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as slow walking speed, difficulty with balance, tremor, stooped posture and difficulty getting in and out of chairs. Background information in the study notes that while Parkinson’s disease affects only about five per cent of older adults, more than half of people over age 85 have mild Parkinsonian symptoms.

The researchers found that there was a link between blood vessel abnormalities found in brain autopsies, and the presence of motor symptoms. Blood vessel blockages that were visible to the naked eye during the autopsy, or having several microscopic blockages, were associated with higher overall Parkinsonian symptoms. Blocked blood vessels (visible and microscopic) and stiffened blood vessels were both associated with “Parkinsonian gait” – a walking posture marked by slowness, shuffling and bent posture.

The study results suggest that some motor symptoms associated with aging may be related to undetected blood vessel problems in the brain.

The study was published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association on Sept. 1, 2011.

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  • Women's College Hospital