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High Blood Pressure Ages the Brain

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Here’s more evidence that it’s vital to keep your blood pressure in check. Researchers at Boston University Medical Center report that having high blood pressure in midlife reduces your ability to successfully complete mental tasks like keeping track of appointments or planning ahead in old age.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 378 participants in the Framingham Heart Study, a decades-long study of people living in the town of Framingham, Mass. All were free of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The investigators assessed blood pressure when study participants were between 50 and 60. They then assessed memory and thinking skills 30 years later, when the participants were in their 80s.  

Compared to their peers with healthy blood pressure, participants who had elevated blood pressure in middle age scored worse on tests of attention and executive function later in life. Executive function is critical for planning and carrying out tasks and is typically severely compromised by Alzheimer’s disease.

“Decline in cognition is often considered an inevitable consequence of aging, and age is the single biggest risk factor for dementia,” said Rhoda Au, a professor of neurology at Boston University and an author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. “But perhaps managing factors that impact brain aging, such as blood pressure, will help increase brain health and reduce the risk for dementia.”

The researchers recommend that if your blood pressure is high when you are younger, you should develop a plan with your doctor to bring it to normal levels. Lifestyle measures like exercise and weight loss are typically recommended as first steps, and blood pressure medications may also be needed.

“Midlife health matters,” Dr. Au said. “The pathway to one’s older years is through the younger years, and taking care of your health while you are younger may help you better preserve your cognitive health when you are older.”

The findings are consistent with earlier research showing a link between midlife hypertension and the later development of Alzheimer’s disease. Other evidence shows that men and women who take drugs to keep high blood pressure in check may be somewhat protected against Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

More research is needed to better understand the link between high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s disease, but a growing body of evidence shows that keeping blood pressure in check is good for the brain. It may even help stave off Alzheimer’s years down the road.

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