Associations between modifiable risk factors and white matter of the aging brain: insights from diffusion tensor imaging studies

Thomas M. Wassenaar, Kristine Yaffe, Ysbrand D. van der Werf, Claire E. Sexton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


There is increasing interest in factors that may modulate white matter (WM) breakdown and, consequentially, age-related cognitive and behavioral deficits. Recent diffusion tensor imaging studies have examined the relationship of such factors with WM microstructure. This review summarizes the evidence regarding the relationship between WM microstructure and recognized modifiable factors, including hearing loss, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, smoking, depressive symptoms, physical (in) activity, and social isolation, as well as sleep disturbances, diet, cognitive training, and meditation. Current cross-sectional evidence suggests a clear link between loss of WM integrity (lower fractional anisotropy and higher mean diffusivity) and hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and smoking; a relationship that seems to hold for hearing loss, social isolation, depressive symptoms, and sleep disturbances. Physical activity, cognitive training, diet, and meditation, on the other hand, may protect WM with aging. Preliminary evidence from cross-sectional studies of treated risk factors suggests that modification of factors could slow down negative effects on WM microstructure. Careful intervention studies are needed for this literature to contribute to public health initiatives going forward.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-70
JournalNeurobiology of Aging
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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