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Where people live can affect their brains, UW study says

Where people live can affect their brains, UW study says

MRI scan

Shown here is an MRI scan.

People who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods may have smaller centers of learning and memory in their brains, according to a UW-Madison study.

In the study, 951 cognitively normal people had MRIs to measure their total brain volumes and their hippocampuses, the centers of learning and memory. Hippocampuses of those from the most highly disadvantaged neighborhoods were 4% smaller than those from more advantaged neighborhoods, researchers reported Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.

The 4% is the equivalent of four to seven extra years of brain aging, the study said.

“This research is among the first to demonstrate that the relative disadvantage of our neighborhoods is linked to brain structures involved in memory function,” Jack Hunt, an M.D./Ph.D. student at UW-Madison and an author of the study, said in a statement.

The relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and brain structure was not due to differences in racial identity or years of education, the researchers said.

The research looked at socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment, education and housing quality in a Neighborhood Atlas tool developed by Dr. Amy Kind, a UW associate professor of medicine and another author of the study.

“In the future, researchers and clinicians might be able to use technology like that used in our study to identify factors that negatively impact brain health on a population level,” Kind said. “The same technology could then help direct preventive strategies like improving access to affordable health care, housing, nutritious foods, community activities, or caregiver support to the individuals and communities that need them most.”

The study participants were from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Clinical Core and the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, ongoing UW studies of people with and without memory loss or a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.

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