High Blood Pressure, Even In Middle Age, Can Increase Dementia Risk

Reducing high blood pressure might be critical to preserving your memory, thinking, and other cognitive skills as you age, according to research published this week in the American Heart Association journal HypertensionResearchers in Brazil tracked roughly 7,000 participants from six Brazilian cities over four years, noting their blood pressure and any changes in memory, concentration, attention, language skills, motor speed, and mental "flexibility." The participants had an average age of 59 when the study began (via Healthline).

They found participants with uncontrolled high blood pressure, or blood pressure not modified through medication or lifestyle changes, showed accelerated signs of cognitive decline compared to those who took blood pressure medication or used other methods to maintain lower blood pressure.

Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, the American Heart Association (AHA) says. Put simply, blood pressure is the pressure that blood exerts on artery walls as the heart pumps blood through the arteries to reach other parts of the body, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Your blood pressure normally rises and falls throughout the day. Health professionals measure blood pressure through two numbers: the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats (called systolic blood pressure) and the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats (called diastolic blood pressure). A normal blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mmHg, or "120 over 80" (via Healthline).

Lowering high blood pressure has other proven benefits

People are at risk of high blood pressure, also known as having prehypertension, when their blood pressure level is elevated, or at 120 mmHg to 129 mmHg systolic or higher. People are diagnosed with high blood pressure when their blood pressure level is 130 mmHg or higher or they have a diastolic pressure of 80 mmHg or higher.

"We initially anticipated that the negative effects of hypertension on cognitive function would be more critical when hypertension started at a younger age; however, our results show similar accelerated cognitive performance decline whether hypertension started in middle age or at older ages," study author Sandhi Maria Barreto, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said in a news release to AHA.

Effectively treating high blood pressure at any age in adulthood could reduce or prevent this accelerated decline, Barreto added. "Collectively, the findings suggest hypertension needs to be prevented, diagnosed, and effectively treated in adults of any age to preserve cognitive function."

There may be a limit to how much lowering blood pressure can preserve brain health, Dr. Gregg Fonarow, interim chief of the division of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told WebMD. But controlling high blood pressure has been proven to lower the risk of stroke, heart failure, heart attack, and premature cardiovascular death.