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