Southmead Hospital researchers look at link between COPD and dementia

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Researchers at North Bristol NHS Trust have made discoveries about the link between chronic lung disease, memory problems and risk of dementia.
The team based at Southmead Hospital has established ways of identifying which people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) may be more likely to be affected by problems with their memory and problem-solving.
North Bristol NHS Trust Consultant in Respiratory Medicine and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol Dr James Dodd led the British Lung Foundation-funded research. The study was carried out as a collaboration bringing together expertise from St George’s University of London, Bristol Heart Institute, University of Bristol Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRiC) and the Respiratory Research Unit at Southmead.

The respiratory team at North Bristol NHS Trust, including James Dodd, who led the research on COPD and memory


Previous research has shown that people with COPD are at increased risk of memory problems and dementia. If problems with memory can be detected early enough it is possible that treatment may help reduce the risk of developing dementia. Memory problems in people living with chronic lung disease can have an impact on their ability to remember to take medications, attend appointments and self-manage during periods of worsening symptoms.
The study looked at developing new ways of identifying which people living with COPD are at risk of brain damage and dysfunction and understand some of the mechanisms.
It involved 55 people – 30 with COPD and 25 smokers without the lung disease.
The team used a simple questionnaire called the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, detailed MRI of the brain and heart and also retinal photography, which takes a photo of the back of the eye.
They found that people with COPD had worse memory problems and had changes in the grey matter in the frontal part of the brain and stiffness of the large heart vessels. They also found that in patients with COPD a simple photo of the back of the eye may be a useful way of identifying those at risk of vascular related brain damage.
Dr Dodd said: “This is an important early study to help build a picture of how COPD may influence the way the brain and vascular system work. This study also takes us forward in trying to identify simple tests that could be used to prevent long term memory problems and brain changes associated with COPD.
“We presented the data in Washington and London and have been approached by researchers in Canada and the US interested in developing the techniques from our work as a way of looking at vascular and memory problems in COPD.”
Ian Jarrold, Head of Research at the British Lung Foundation, said: “This research highlights the importance of looking after all aspects of health in people who have COPD. Further work is now needed, which we hope will lead to a new way of detecting memory problems in those diagnosed with this lung condition.
“Introducing the right treatment and care as early as possible is vital in helping to maximise quality of life in COPD patients.”

Case study

Joan Austin was diagnosed with COPD in 2009 after suffering breathing difficulties since 2000, which she feels were exacerbated by the treatment she had for breast cancer in 2007.
Her symptoms included coughing, chest pain, getting out of breath and suffering with chest infections.
It was after a particularly bad chest infection which left her requiring hospital treatment that Joan thought there might be something more seriously wrong with her.

Joan Austin has COPD
“My symptoms vary from day to day,” Joan, who is on oxygen, said.
“Some days I feel normal but other days by the time I’ve got up and had my breakfast I want to go back to bed.
“Some days it’s like I can’t catch my breath and if I go out I feel exhausted.”
She has noticed problems with her memory.
“I am terrible at remembering names and completely forget what I need to get when we go out,” Joan said.
“I think there is a good possibility that this has got worse with the COPD but I think it is possibly both that and the chemotherapy I had.
“I think any sort of research is brilliant.”