THURSDAY, Aug. 25 (HealthDay News) -- A build-up of calcified plaque in arteries in parts of the body outside the brain may be linked with brain changes that increase the risk of stroke and dementia, a new study finds.

Researchers used CT scans to check 885 people, average age 67, for calcification in four different blood vessel areas: the coronary arteries that provide blood to the heart; the aortic arch that delivers blood from the heart into general circulation; and the extracranial and intracranial carotid arteries that carry blood through the neck into the brain.

The researchers also used MRI to check the participants' brains for evidence of small strokes, tiny brain bleeds and white matter lesions.

These types of brain changes don't necessarily cause symptoms immediately but are often detected in people with stroke or dementia and, over the long term, may be associated with cognitive decline, explained senior study author Dr. Meike W. Vernooij, an assistant professor of epidemiology and radiology at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

The researchers found that calcium build-up in each of the four arteries was associated with white matter lesions and small strokes in the brain, and that the amount of calcified plaque in the vessels closest to the brain (carotid arteries) was most strongly linked with signs of vascular brain disease.

The strongest associations were between intracranial carotid calcification and the volume of white matter lesions, and extracranial carotid calcification and small strokes.

The study was published Aug. 25 in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about atherosclerosis.