OBJECTIVE: To investigate if the association between MRI-detectable white matter hyperintensity (WMH) and cognitive status reported in previous studies persists at older ages (>80 years), when some white matter abnormality is almost universally reported in clinical practice. METHODS: Consecutive eligible patients from a population-based cohort of all TIA/nondisabling stroke (Oxford Vascular Study) underwent multimodal MRI, including fluid-attenuated inversion recovery and diffusion-weighted imaging, allowing automated measurement of WMH volume, mean diffusivity (MD), and fractional anisotropy (FA) in normal-appearing white matter using FSL tools. These measures were related to cognitive status (Montreal Cognitive Assessment) at age ≤80 vs >80 years. RESULTS: Of 566 patients (mean [range] age 66.7 [20-102] years), 107 were aged >80 years. WMH volumes and MD/FA were strongly associated with cognitive status in patients aged ≤80 years (all p < 0.001 for WMH, MD, and FA) but not in patients aged >80 years (not significant for WMH, MD, and FA), with age interactions for WMH volume (pinteraction = 0.016) and MD (pinteraction = 0.037). Voxel-wise analyses also showed that lower Montreal Cognitive Assessment scores were associated with frontal WMH in patients ≤80 years, but not >80 years. CONCLUSION: MRI markers of white matter damage are strongly related to cognition in patients with TIA/minor stroke at younger ages, but not at age >80 years. Clinicians and patients should not overinterpret the significance of these abnormalities at older ages.
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