By: Kathy Hubbard
We’re often told that high blood pressure (hypertension) is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and strokes. But, have you heard that it can also increase your risk of dementia?
Over the years, several observational studies have indicated that having high blood pressure in middle age increases your risk of cognitive decline later in life. In 2016 the National Institute on Aging published a study that confirmed the connection between blood pressure and the brain.
“While only about two percent of body weight, the brain receives twenty percent of the body’s blood supply. Its vast network of blood vessels carries oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients to brain cells, providing the brain’s energy to function correctly.
“The blood flow that keeps the healthy brain can, if reduced or blocked, harm this essential organ. Uncontrolled high blood pressure plays a part in this damage,” NIA said.
A recent study headed by Dr. Sandhi M. Barreto, Ph.D. at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, confirmed that high blood pressure accelerates memory loss even when it goes up just slightly and for a short duration. Alternatively, controlling high blood pressure slows the speed of cognitive decline.
There has been quite a bit written about this study. I found articles on Healthline.com and at the American Heart Association’s website, Heart.org. Researchers analyzed the blood pressure and cognitive skills of over 7,000 adults in Brazil. The average age at the beginning of the study was 59, and the tests were conducted over four years.
These tests included measuring memory, verbal fluency, and executive function in attention, concentration, and other factors associated with thinking and reasoning.
“We initially anticipated that the negative effects of hypertension on cognitive function would be more critical when hypertension started at a younger age,” Dr. Barreto said. “However, our results show similar accelerated cognitive performance decline whether hypertension started in middle age or at older generations.
“We also found that effectively treating high blood pressure at any age in adulthood could reduce or prevent this acceleration. Collectively, the findings suggest hypertension needs to be prevented, diagnosed, and effectively treated in adults of any age to preserve cognitive function.”
People with high blood pressure who weren’t treated with medications to lower it saw faster declines than those treated, particularly those whose blood pressure was normal.
“Even those with prehypertension, a condition of slightly elevated blood pressure, saw a faster decline in cognitive function than those with blood pressure in the normal range,” Dr. Barreto said.
Getting your blood pressure checked is as simple as going to one of the desk-like kiosks at local grocery stores and pharmacies. I also found an at-home monitor for as little as $18 online, which is a small price to pay to check your blood pressure regularly. But, what’s more important than just knowing the numbers is having a conversation with your healthcare provider to learn what your numbers should be for your age, gender, and race.
According to AHA statistics, nearly half of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. This is most likely because blood pressure increases as weight increases, and we’ve all heard about the fattening of Americans. Mayo Clinic tells us that weight loss is the number one most effective way to lower blood pressure.
“Losing even a small amount of weight if you’re overweight or obese can help reduce your blood pressure. In general, you may reduce your blood pressure by about one millimeter of mercury with each kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of weight you lose,” they say.
Mayo also says to exercise 150 minutes a week (30 minutes a day), to eat a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Reduce the amount of sodium in your diet to less than 1,500 mgs per day, reduce the saturated fats you eat, limit the amount of alcohol you consume, cut back on caffeine, quit smoking, and reduce your stress.
You’ve heard all this before? I’ll say it again. It’s time to check your blood pressure.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.