With COPD, Beware of Tiny Brain Bleeds

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is associated with higher likelihood of cerebral microbleeds

July 22, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) Bleeding within the brain can be a sign of age-related mental decline to come. While this occurs more commonly among stroke victims, patients with COPD may be prone to this as well.

Cerebral microbleeds happen when the walls of blood vessels in the brain become weakened. The bleeds can be a marker of cerebral small vessel disease, which causes age-related disability and can impair the ability to think clearly.

Individuals who have the lung condition COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) may have an increased risk of this bleeding in the brain compared to those without COPD, according to recent research.

"Treat COPD and breathe easier."

Lies Lahousse, PhD, of the Department of Respiratory Medicine at Ghent University Hospital in Belgium, and Bruno Stricker, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, led this research following 165 patients with COPD.

Using high resolution MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, the researchers measured cerebral microbleeds in these study participants.

They compared the results with MRI scans of 645 subjects with normal lung function. All patients were 55 or older.

Compared to subjects with normal lung function, COPD patients had a significantly higher number of cerebral microbleeds. The researchers observed that the worse a person’s breathing problem, the more microbleeds they were likely to have.

COPD is a disease that gets worse over time and makes it difficult to breathe. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. While there is no cure, patients can take steps to improve their breathing, including quitting smoking, eating to meet nutritional needs, exercising and taking the proper medications.

The authors of this study also noted the rates of microbleeds in deep or infratentorial locations in the brain. Bleeding in these regions is linked to hypertensive (high blood pressure) or arteriosclerotic (hardening of arteries) disease in the small blood vessels.

COPD patients are already known to have an increased risk of large vessel disease, but this study showed how COPD may affect small vessels as well.

"The connection between COPD and cerebral small vessel disease was suggested by two earlier studies, but the connection between COPD and cerebral microbleeds — the location of which can help elucidate underlying disease mechanisms — has not been studied," the study authors wrote.

"Given the potential cognitive and functional consequences of these microbleeds, preventive strategies for vulnerable patients need to be developed," said Dr. Lahousse in a press release.

This study was published online on July 19 in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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Review Date: 
July 19, 2013
Last Updated:
July 25, 2013