New research from University College London suggests a quick ultrasound scan examining blood vessels in the neck may be able to effectively predict a person's risk of developing cognitive decline more than 10 years before symptoms appear.

The impressive long-term study began in 2002 with the researchers subjecting over 3,000 healthy middle-aged volunteers to an ultrasound scan designed to measure the intensity of blood traveling through blood vessels in the neck. The scan is non-invasive and takes as little as five minutes.

After monitoring the subjects for over 15 years the researchers revealed that those with the highest intensity of pulse displayed a 50 percent greater risk of developing symptoms of cognitive decline in the decade following the scan. The risk factor was still evident even after the researchers adjusted for confounding factors including BMI, diabetes and heart conditions.

"These findings demonstrate the first direct link between the heart's pulse transmitted towards the brain and future impairments in cognitive function," says Scott Chiesa, one of the UCL researchers working on the project. "It's a potentially treatable cause of cognitive decline in middle-aged adults which can be spotted well in advance – before any noticeable changes in brain structure or function."

The diagnosis focuses on detecting the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's, called vascular dementia. One of the causes of this kind of cognitive decline is due to small vessels in the brain being damaged by irregularities in the brain's blood supply. The hypothesis behind the test was that measuring the force at which blood is traveling through vessels in the neck could be an effective early biomarker pointing to slow damage in the brain's blood vessel network. Over time, these constant higher pulses could lead to the development of cognitive decline and dementia.

The researchers plan to conduct follow-up work with the same cohort using MRI scans to determine any correlation between the early ultrasound scans and later structural changes in the brain. The hurdle at this stage is that the study has only examined results in relation to the earliest stages of cognitive decline, which doesn't progress to clinical dementia in all cases.

However, if further work can verify the veracity of the scan as an effective early predictor of dementia then it could be an easy and cheap clinical tool to add to a doctor's diagnostic arsenal. Metin Avkiran, from the British Heart Foundation, which co-funded this research, suggests the immediate takeaway from the study is that it can act as a reminder of the holistic importance in maintaining good heart health.

"The best way to protect yourself is to lead a lifestyle that keeps your blood vessels healthy," says Avkiran. "The same risk factors which are linked to heart disease – such as high blood pressure and lack of exercise – are strongly linked to dementia. It really is a case of healthy body and healthy mind."

The new research was presented at the AHA Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago.