Cerebral Microbleeds as Predictors of Mortality
The Framingham Heart Study
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Background and Purpose—Cerebral microbleeds (CMB) represent a common magnetic resonance imaging marker of cerebral small vessel disease, increasingly recognized as a subclinical marker of stroke and dementia risk. CMB detection may reflect the cumulative effect of vascular risk burden and be a marker of higher mortality. We investigated the relation of CMB to risk of death in community dwelling participants free of stroke and dementia.
Methods—We evaluated 1963 Framingham Original and Offspring Cohort participants (mean age 67 years; 54% women) with available brain magnetic resonance imaging and mortality data. Using Cox proportional hazards models, we related CMB to all-cause, cardiovascular, and stroke-related mortality.
Results—Participants with CMB (8.9%) had higher prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors and use of preventive medications. During a mean follow-up of 7.2±2.6 years, we observed 296 deaths. In age- and sex-adjusted analysis, CMB were associated with increased all-cause mortality (hazards ratio, 1.39; 95% confidence interval 1.03–1.88), a relation that was no longer significant after adjustment for cardiovascular risk and preventive medication use (hazards ratio, 1.15; 95% confidence interval, 0.82–1.63).
Conclusions—CMBs may represent the deleterious effect of cardiovascular risk factors in the cerebral vasculature. Although their presence was associated with increased all-cause mortality, the effect was no longer present after accounting for vascular risk factors and preventive treatment use. Further studies are required to clarify the role of cardiovascular preventive therapies for prevention of mortality in persons with incidental detection of CMB.
Cerebral microbleeds (CMB) are subclinical markers of cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD) associated with stroke, dementia, and modifiable vascular risk factors.1–3 CMB represent a common magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) marker of hemorrhage-prone CSVD, but are also associated with ischemic events.4 CMB may reflect an aggregate measure of vascular disease burden, and their detection may portend higher risk of mortality.5 We investigated the association between CMB and mortality in a large sample of neurologically healthy people dwelling in the community, accounting for vascular risk factors, preventive cardiovascular medication use, and ischemic brain MRI measures of CSVD.
We included 1963 Framingham Original and Offspring Cohort participants with available CMB data and follow-up information for mortality, after excluding participants with prevalent stroke, dementia, or other neurological conditions that could affect MRI measures (Figure I in the online-only Data Supplement). Details of sample selection, MRI protocol, and vascular risk factor definitions are presented in the online-only Data Supplement. The Institutional Review Board of Boston University Medical Center approved the study protocol, and informed consent was obtained from all subjects.
Follow up for mortality was carried through ongoing surveillance. All relevant data were reviewed by a panel of 3 investigators who determined the cause of death for cases as previously described.7 Follow-up for entry to present study spans from time of MRI until death, loss to follow-up, or December 31, 2012.
Baseline characteristics of study participants and incidence rates were evaluated overall and by CMB brain location (ie, any CMB, lobar only, deep and mixed, and deep only). Using Cox proportional hazards regression models, we estimated hazards ratios and 95% confidence intervals for all-cause, cardiovascular, and stroke-related mortality. Model 1 adjusted for age and sex; model 2 additionally adjusted for systolic blood pressure, current smoking, diabetes mellitus, total cholesterol, hypertension and cholesterol treatment, aspirin, antiplatelet, and anticoagulant use, apolipoprotein E (apoE)-ε4 status, and time between covariate assessment and MRI; model 3 additionally adjusted for MRI markers of ischemic CSVD (ln-transformed white matter hyperintensity volume and presence of covert brain infarcts). CMB burden (≥2 CMBs, 1 CMB versus no CMB [referent]) was related to each of the outcome events. Statistical analyses were done using SAS version 9.4 (Cary, NC).
Among the 173 participants (8.9%) with CMB, 64% had single and 36% had multiple CMB. Participants with CMB were older, more likely to be men, had higher prevalence of vascular risk factors and previous cardiovascular disease, higher use of preventive medications, white matter hyperintensity volumes, and presence of covert brain infarcts (Table 1).
Over a mean (SD) period of 7.2 (2.6) years, 296 participants died of any cause, 60 died of cardiovascular disease, and 17 of stroke. Crude incident rates of all event types were higher among participants with CMB (Table I in the online-only Data Supplement).
Participants with any CMB had a modest increase in risk of all-cause mortality (hazards ratio, 1.39; 95% confidence interval, 1.03–1.88), but the associations were attenuated and no longer significant after adjustment for vascular risk factors (Table 2). Similar hazard ratios were observed among participants with lobar CMB and deep/mixed CMB, though with imprecise and nonsignificant estimates. Results pertaining to cardiovascular mortality were limited by lower number of events in CMB subgroups. Participants with ≥2 CMBs had a higher risk of all-cause mortality after adjustment for age and sex (hazards ratio, 1.56; 95% confidence interval, 1.06–2.31), but the association was attenuated after adjusting for vascular risk factors (Table II in the online-only Data Supplement).
In this prospective community-based study of participants free of neurological disease, detection of CMB was associated with a modest increase in all-cause mortality, but the association was not independent of vascular risk factors and use of preventive treatments.
Other studies have found that CMB are associated with increased risk of death among people with dementia8 and stroke9 and in a single community-based study.10 CMB may reflect the deleterious effect of long-term exposure to vascular risk factors in the cerebral vasculature. Our observation that participants with CMB had higher burden of ischemic CSVD (ie, more covert brain infarcts and higher white matter hyperintensity volumes) supports this hypothesis. Further, prior studies suggest that CMB may be detectable before other organ involvement, such as kidney or heart. Thus, CMB detection may offer a window of opportunity for clinicians to act on modifiable risk factors to prevent mortality.
Among the strengths of our study are the large population-based cohort design, careful ascertainment of cardiovascular risk and preventive medication use, and inclusion of brain MRI markers of ischemic brain injury, all factors that may impact our outcomes of interest. Clinical outcomes were ascertained using detailed review of all medical records. We included participants free of neurological disease, with a younger mean age than in prior studies. Brain MRI measurements were reliable and were obtained blinded to clinical and demographic characteristics.
We submit that our results are unlikely to be biased by selection of participants into the study because their selection was unrelated to the exposure or outcome. Misclassification of exposure is possible, related to underdetection of CMB compared with studies using higher magnetic resonance strength or more sensitive MRI protocols, but any misclassification would be nondifferential, most likely to underestimate true effects. Our analyses involving prespecified CMB subgroups are limited by the smaller sample and fewer events among these subgroups. Last, Framingham participants are primarily of European ancestry, thus, preventing generalization of results to other ethnic or racial groups.
Our results suggest that the association of CMB presence and mortality is not independent of vascular risk factors in asymptomatic community-dwelling people. The reduction of risk after adjustment for vascular risk factors and preventive treatment use needs further evaluation to clarify the role of preventive cardiovascular treatments for reduction of mortality in people with incidental detection of CMB.
Sources of Funding
This study was supported by National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) contract (N01-HC-25195; HHSN268201500001I); National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grants (R01 NS017950), National Institute of Aging (R01 AG008122; K23AG038444; 1 R03 AG048180-01A1; AG054076; AG049607); National Institute of Health grants (1RO1 HL64753; R01 HL076784; 1 R01 AG028321, P30 AG010129), and NHLBI grants (HL67288, and 2K24HL04334).
The online-only Data Supplement is available with this article at http://stroke.ahajournals.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.015354/-/DC1.
- Received July 8, 2016.
- Revision received November 30, 2016.
- Accepted December 9, 2016.
- © 2017 American Heart Association, Inc.
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