Impact of Small Vessel Disease Progression on Long-term Cognitive and Functional Changes After Stroke

Background and Objectives

The severity of white matter hyperintensities (WMH) at presentation with stroke is associated with poststroke dementia and dependency. However, WMH can decrease or increase after stroke; prediction of cognitive decline is imprecise; and there are few data assessing longitudinal interrelationships among changing WMH, cognition, and function after stroke, despite the clinical importance.


We recruited patients within 3 months of a minor ischemic stroke, defined as NIH Stroke Scale (NIHSS) score 2. Participants repeated MRI at 1 year and cognitive and mRS assessments at 1 and 3 years. We ran longitudinal mixed-effects models assessing change in Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination–Revised (ACE-R) and mRS scores. For mRS score, we assessed longitudinal WMH volumes (cube root; percentage intracranial volume [ICV]), adjusting for age, NIHSS score, ACE-R, stroke subtype, and time to assessment. For ACE-R score, we additionally adjusted for ICV, mRS, premorbid IQ, and vascular risk factors. We then used a multivariate model to jointly assess changing cognition/mRS score, adjusted for prognostic variables, using all available data.


We recruited 264 patients; mean age was 66.9 (SD 11.8) years; 41.7% were female; and median mRS score was 1 (interquartile range 1–2). One year after stroke, normalized WMH volumes were associated more strongly with 1-year ACE-R score (β = –0.259, 95% CI –0.407 to –0.111 more WMH per 1-point ACE-R decrease, p = 0.001) compared to subacute WMH volumes and ACE-R score (β = 0.105, 95% CI –0.265 to 0.054, p = 0.195). Three-year mRS score was associated with 3-year ACE-R score (β = –0.272, 95% CI –0.429 to –0.115, p = 0.001). Combined change in baseline-1-year jointly assessed ACE-R/mRS scores was associated with fluctuating WMH volumes (F = 9.3, p = 0.03).


After stroke, fluctuating WMH mean that 1-year, but not baseline, WMH volumes are associated strongly with contemporaneous cognitive scores. Covarying longitudinal decline in cognition and independence after stroke, central to dementia diagnosis, is associated with increasing WMH volumes.

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