High blood pressure carries the risk of several other complications, including heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, vision loss, and sexual dysfunction. A new study finds it could also have impacts on your brain health as a senior, even when you’re still in earlier adulthood.
Researchers from University of California, Davis recently compared the brain health of older adults who had had high blood pressure in their 30s with those who had a healthy blood pressure at that time. Their findings, published in JAMA Network Open, showed that brain volume and white matter integrity were both lower in the first group. This indicates that our heart health in younger adulthood could increase dementia risk later on.
Kristen M. George, first author and assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences, explains, “Treatment for dementia is extremely limited, so identifying modifiable risk and protective factors over the life course is key to reducing disease burden.
“High blood pressure is an incredibly common and treatable risk factor associated with dementia. This study indicates hypertension status in early adulthood is important for brain health decades later.”
To determine the impact of hypertension in early adulthood, the researchers used data from more than 400 participants in the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences study and the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans. The data was drawn from 1964 to 1985 and included older Asian, Black, Latino, and white adults.
This group first had their blood pressure taken two times when they were between the ages of 30 and 40. MRI scans were then taken of their brains between 2017 and 2022, when they were seniors. The researchers were looking for biomarkers of neurodegeneration and white matter integrity.
The team found that among those who were either transitioning to high blood pressure or who had high blood pressure, the brain scans showed lower cerebral gray matter volume, frontal cortex volume, and measures of brain connectivity, compared to those with healthy blood pressure. These differences were also found to be stronger in men, which the researchers believe may have to do with the protective effects of estrogen before menopause, something that has been linked with Alzheimer’s before.
The team acknowledged some limitations of their study, including that the sample size made it impossible to investigate racial and ethnic differences, and that the MRI images were only taken once later in life and could not demonstrate evidence of neurodegeneration, only physical attributes in the brain. They also say the differences between sexes should be interpreted with caution.
However, they say the findings show the importance of taking control of your health at an early age.
Rachel Whitmer, study co-author and professor in the departments of Public Health Sciences and Neurology, says, “This study truly demonstrates the importance of early life risk factors and that to age well, you need to take care of yourself throughout life — heart health is brain health.”
The American Stroke Association and the American Heart Association have also listed blood pressure as one of 13 factors related to dementia risk. You can read more about all 13 risk factors here.Whizzco