September 3, 2010...6:47 pm

Small Heads, More Alzheimer’s

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by Jean Carper

Yikes! That’s how I feel about a new finding that smaller head-size boosts Alzheimer’s progression. I have enough to worry about with my ApoE4 gene that triples my odds of getting the disease, and now a small head, too.  German researchers affiliated with the Technical University of Munich spread this news via the highly respected medical journal Neurology.

It appears they dutifully put a tape measure around the heads of 270 Alzheimer’s patients. They also gave them memory tests and scans to judge the extent of brain cell death. For those of us with small heads, the conclusions were distressingly blunt:  Among people with equal loss of brain cells, large heads outperformed small heads on memory and thinking tests. For every additional centimeter of head size, the score on a memory test jumped six percent!  It sounds like a lot to me. The brains in small heads were also more atrophied.

The team, led by Robert Perneczky, points out that your brain reaches 93 percent of its final size at age six. That’s about when I remember being fitted for a hat for a school event. A teacher put a filler inside so the cap didn’t fall down over my eyes.  Little did I suspect the significance.

Head size is not due entirely to genetics, however, the German neuroscientists note. Early poor nutrition, infections and inflammations, and brain injuries might thwart head growth. I did suffer a bad fall as a toddler, but I am reluctant to blame my mother for carelessly feeding me.

Nevertheless, I do understand that cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s can be influenced by  prenatal and early life conditions reflected in head size. There’s other evidence that good memory and brain structure formed in utero persist through life and into old age. So it makes sense to encourage optimal head and brain development during the earliest years.

Still, it’s hard to accept that my irreversible small head circumference is pushing me closer to Alzheimer’s. But maybe all the mental and physical exercise I do will compensate by keeping more brain cells alive and spurring the birth of new ones. I’m sure those guys in Munich who measured the small and large heads know that’s possible, too.

We with small heads just have to try harder to build stronger brains to resist the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms longer.

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