ATLANTA - One in 60 older people may be walking around with benign brain tumors and not know it. Even more may have bulging blood vessels in the head that could burst.
These results come from a surprising Dutch study that finds brain abnormalities are not very uncommon. It's not clear how alarming this is. Most of the abnormalities hadn't caused any symptoms, though some were potentially life-threatening.
The findings, however, might have implications for patients: As more of these abnormalities are spotted with more sophisticated equipment during routine medical tests, some doctors might urge patients to have surgery or other treatment as a precaution. Or some patients might push doctors to fix the potential problem.
"It's very scary to learn there's something wrong in your head," said Dr. Aad van der Lugt, an associate professor in radiology at Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam and a coauthor of the study being published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
The study is based on MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scans of 2,000 healthy adults with an average age of 63. They were participating in a study to look at the causes and consequences of age-related brain changes. The findings were incidental to the main research.
Scans are increasingly being used, raising the chances that abnormalities will be spotted. About 20 million MRIs are done worldwide each year on the head, according to GE Healthcare, which makes scanners.
Physicians do not recommend routine MRIs to look for brain problems in the way that people now get mammograms or colonoscopies. "There's no evidence that screening MRIs of the brain are valuable," said Dr. Carolyn Meltzer, head of radiology at Emory University School of Medicine.
The Dutch scientists found 32 people in the study - or 1.6 percent - had brain tumors. All but one were non-cancerous, but even benign tumors can kill if they grow and shut down vital brain functions. Doctors sometimes treat these. None of the tumors required surgery.
Thirty-five people - or 1.8 percent - had bulging blood vessels, called aneurysms. Blood vessels that burst can cause serious strokes. However, all but five aneurysms in the study were not considered dangerous.