Ending the Silence on High Blood Pressure and Brain Health | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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March 11, 2016

Ending the Silence on High Blood Pressure and Brain Health

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin


Listen closely, because there’s lots to learn about the link between high blood pressure – known as the “silent killer” – and your brain health.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that blood pressure control is critically important to brain health,” said Charles DeCarli, MD, Professor of Neurology and Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of California, Davis. “Uncontrolled high blood pressure causes the brain to age more quickly.”

And, according to Dr. DeCarli – who led a study that connected hypertension to structural damage in the brain – high blood pressure begins taking its toll on the brains of people when they’re relatively young, in their late 30s or early 40s. 

How does uncontrolled high blood pressure affect the brain? To answer that question, Dr. DeCarli and his team recruited 579 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts who were, on average, 39-years-old. Study participants were divided into groups with:

Normal blood pressure

  •  Below 120 systolic (upper number) and below 80 diastolic (lower number).

Borderline high blood pressure (pre-hypertension) 

  •  Between 120-139 systolic or between 80-89 diastolic.

High blood pressure

  •  140-159 systolic or 90-99 diastolic (hypertension stage 1).
  •  160 or higher systolic or 100 or higher diastolic (hypertension stage 2).

The research team also noted whether the participants were receiving treatment for their blood pressure and if they smoked. All participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—an imaging study that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create pictures, in this case of the brain. These images revealed damage to the two types of tissue – white matter and grey matter – in the brains of study participants with high blood pressure and pre-hypertension. 

“As the blood vessels deteriorate, they become stiffer and less able to move the blood through the brain,” Dr. DeCarli said. “This can affect the brain’s ability to encode new information and organize thoughts, hallmarks of cognitive impairment and dementia.”

Raise Your Voice & Manage Your Blood Pressure

Research like Dr. DeCarli’s has prompted the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) to launch a public health education campaign called Mind Your Risks. The campaign is designed to raise awareness about the importance of controlling your risk factors – particularly high blood pressure – as a way to reduce the chance of cognitive decline later in life.

“My advice is to treat high pressure and treat it aggressively,” said Dr. DeCarli. “That can mean managing your hypertension with medications as well as pursuing regular exercise and a healthy diet.”