Background: Cerebral white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) on MRI are common and associated with vascular and functional outcomes. However, the relationship between WMHs and longitudinal trajectories of functional status is not well characterized. We hypothesized that whole brain WMHs are associated with functional decline independently of intervening clinical vascular events and other vascular risk factors. Methods and findings: In the Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS), a population-based racially/ethnically diverse prospective cohort study, 1,290 stroke-free individuals underwent brain MRI and were followed afterwards for a mean 7.3 years with annual functional assessments using the Barthel index (BI) (range 0–100) and vascular event surveillance. Whole brain white matter hyperintensity volume (WMHV) (as percentage of total cranial volume [TCV]) was standardized and treated continuously. Generalized estimating equation (GEE) models tested associations between whole brain WMHV and baseline BI and change in BI, adjusting for sociodemographic, vascular, and cognitive risk factors, as well as stroke and myocardial infarction (MI) occurring during follow-up. Mean age was 70.6 (standard deviation [SD] 9.0) years, 40% of participants were male, 66% Hispanic; mean whole brain WMHV was 0.68% (SD 0.84). In fully adjusted models, annual functional change was −1.04 BI points (−1.20, −0.88), with −0.74 additional points annually per SD whole brain WMHV increase from the mean (−0.99, −0.49). Whole brain WMHV was not associated with baseline BI, and results were similar for mobility and non-mobility BI domains and among those with baseline BI 95–100. A limitation of the study is the possibility of a healthy survivor bias, which would likely have underestimated the associations we found. Conclusions: In this large population-based study, greater whole brain WMHV was associated with steeper annual decline in functional status over the long term, independently of risk factors, vascular events, and baseline functional status. Subclinical brain ischemic changes may be an independent marker of long-term functional decline.
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