Prehypertension Causes Brain Damage

Doctors know that high blood pressure increases the risk for memory loss and dementia late in life. But now it seems that blood pressure doesn’t have to be that high—and people don’t have to be that old—for brain damage to start.

Blood Pressure and The Brain

New research from the University of California, Davis, should give pause to anyone with blood pressure that’s even a tick above normal. The study, published online in Lancet Neurology, included 579 people, most in their thirties and forties. All were participants in the famed Framingham Heart Study.

Using MRI technology to study participants’ brains, researchers looked for shrinkage in gray matter, which is composed of the main part of brain cells. They also assessed damage to white matter, which is composed of insulated fibers through which brain cells send out messages. These two types of changes have been linked to mental decline in old age. And even in these younger adults, elevated blood pressure was associated with both.

When blood pressure is normal, the first number is below 120 and the second number is below 80. When blood pressure is high (hypertension), the first number is 140 or above or the second number is 90 or above. In between is a transitional stage called prehypertension, with a first number of 120-139 or a second number of 80-89.

Researchers found subtle signs of changes even in the brains of people with prehypertension. And the higher blood pressure rose, the more premature aging was seen. A typical 40-year-old with full-blown hypertension had a brain that looked like that of a 47-year-old. Although that might not sound too bad, think how upset you’d feel if your face looked nearly a decade older than your true age. Changes within the brain may be hidden, but they’re far more important in the long run.

Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

Heart-Smart and Brain-Savvy

In 2011, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association issued a statement about the link between cardiovascular health and brain health. The statement noted that some lifestyle choices may help protect both:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and abnormal blood sugar

In addition, a study published last year in Neurobiology of Aging showed that a diet low in salt and sodium may help ward off age-related mental decline. The American Heart Association recommends aiming for less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

It’s never too late—or too early—to start making healthy lifestyle changes. Otherwise, your brain could end up old before its time.

7 Warning Signs of Heart Attack

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