May 17, 2023
Heart health is closely tied to brain health, and it’s never too early to start taking measures to protect both. A new study found that having high blood pressure in your 30s is associated with an increased risk of brain problems in your 70s. The findings suggest that taking measures to keep blood pressure in check throughout your life may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia in old age.
For the study, published in JAMA Network Open, researchers at the University of California, Davis, looked at 427 young adults who were part of two long-running studies beginning in the 1960s. All had gotten blood pressure checks when they were in their 30s. Decades later, when they were in their 70s, they all got MRI brain scans to assess the health of their brains.
The researchers found that the group that had high blood pressure in their 30s had lower gray matter volumes in brain regions important for cognition and memory in their 70s. Brain scans from the high blood pressure group also showed signs of disruption in the white matter. Both types of brain changes are associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The link between high blood pressure as a young adult and brain changes typical of dementia was particularly pronounced in men.
“Treatment for dementia is extremely limited, so identifying modifiable risk and protective factors over the life course is key to reducing disease burden,” said Kristen M. George, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at UC Davis’s Department of Public Health Science. “This study indicates hypertension status in early adulthood is important for brain health decades later.”
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is very common, affecting almost half of American adults. It typically develops over time and becomes increasingly common with advancing age. Experts generally advise that it is best to keep blood pressure at 120/80. Earlier research has shown that high blood pressure in midlife is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in old age. This study underscores that blood pressure control is important at even younger ages, and throughout your lifetime.
“To age well, you need to take care of yourself throughout life — heart health is brain health,” said Rachel Whitmer, associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the study’s senior author. “We are excited to be able to continue following these participants and to uncover more about what one can do in early life to set yourself up for healthy brain aging in late life.”
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.
Hypertension can arise because of genetic factors, but also because of lack of exercise and a poor diet. Excessive alcohol use or a high-sodium diet, for example, can contribute to high blood pressure in some people. Getting regular exercise and eating a heart healthy diet can help to keep blood pressure in check.
High blood pressure might be easy to overlook because it often produces no symptoms. But uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and other life-threatening complications. 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.
Studies have shown that intensive blood pressure lowering may reduce the risk of memory and thinking problems, including mild cognitive impairment. Studies also suggest that men and women who take drugs to keep blood pressure in check may be somewhat protected against Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. If you are prescribed blood pressure drugs, it is important to keep taking them and to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Kristen M. George, PhD; Pauline Maillard, PhD; Paola Gilsanz, ScD; et al: “Association of Early Adulthood Hypertension and Blood Pressure Change With Late-Life Neuroimaging Biomarkers.” JAMA Network Open, April 3, 2023. University of California, Davis.