Another Alzheimer’s Risk Factor

November 30, 2022

Having high blood pressure greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. But there’s another reason to keep your blood pressure in check. People who have high blood pressure have a faster decline in memory and thinking skills than their peers with healthy blood pressure.

That was the finding of a new analysis that looked at data from six large studies conducted over many years. But keeping your blood pressure down, through a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise and blood pressure medications, if needed, can help to preserve brain health, the study found.

“Our findings suggest that high blood pressure causes faster cognitive decline, and that taking hypertension medication slows the pace of that decline,” said study author Dr. Deborah Levine, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan medical center. The results were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

For the study, the research team focused on Hispanic Americans, who face a 50 percent higher overall risk of dementia by the end of their life than non-Hispanic white Americans, to evaluate if high blood pressure was a contributing factor. They had health records from 22,095 non-Hispanic older white adults and 2,475 older Hispanic adults, none of whom had a history of stroke or dementia when they enrolled. They followed them for an average of eight years.

The researchers found that blood pressure-related cognitive decline clearly occurred, and it happened at the same pace in people of Hispanic heritage as in non-Hispanic white people, which suggests that other factors likely play a larger role in the disparity.

“Since other studies have shown that people of Hispanic heritage in the United States tend to have higher rates of uncontrolled hypertension than non-Hispanic white people, due in part to worse access to care, it’s vital that they get extra support to control their blood pressure even if blood pressure is only part of the picture when it comes to their higher dementia risk,” Dr. Levine said. “A risk factor like uncontrolled high blood pressure that is more prevalent in one group can still contribute to substantial health disparities.”

The findings are consistent with earlier research showing that overall, having high blood pressure in mid life increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier research by the team had found that higher rates of high blood pressure may contribute to an increased risk of dementia among older Black adults in the United States compared to white adults.

Researchers continue to learn more about how abnormal blood pressure is linked to the risk of developing various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that rigorous treatments to lower blood pressure may reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment, a brain condition that causes memory and thinking problems. In many cases, people with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop, a few years later, Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Earlier studies have found that various heart risk factors at midlife are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to high blood pressure, being overweight, smoking, leading a sedentary life or having diabetes can all increase your risk of developing dementia years down the road.

High blood pressure might be easy to overlook because it often produces no symptoms. While the first-line treatment for high blood pressure is regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet, blood pressure medications are also often needed, and may be especially important for maintaining memory and thinking skills as we age. If you are prescribed blood pressure drugs, it is important to keep taking them to keep blood pressure in check and improve your health over all.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 

Sources: Deborah A. Levine; Alden L. Gross; Emily M. Briceno; et al: “Blood Pressure and Later-Life Cognition in Hispanic and White Adults (BP-COG): A Pooled Cohort Analysis of ARIC, CARDIA, CHS, FOS, MESA, and NOMAS.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, September 28, 2022


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