“Generally, whatever problems impact cardiovascular health also affect cognitive functioning,” says Merrill Elias, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at Boston University who has studied hypertension for 35 years.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is at the root of much cognitive decline that has previously been attributed to aging. The more that scientists study brain function, the more they conclude that we have the ability to keep our memory strong well into old age.
Just like your heart, your brain depends on a healthy, nourishing blood supply to work properly and thrive. High blood pressure can cause several brain problems, including:
- Transient ischemic attack – Sometimes called a ministroke, a transient ischemic attack is a brief, temporary disruption of blood supply to your brain. It’s often caused by atherosclerosis or a blood clot — both of which can arise from high blood pressure.
- Stroke – A stroke occurs when part of your brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients, causing brain cells to die. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to stroke by damaging and weakening your brain’s blood vessels, causing them to narrow, rupture or leak. High blood pressure can also cause blood clots to form in the arteries leading to your brain, blocking blood flow and potentially causing a stroke.
- Dementia – Dementia is a brain disease resulting in problems with thinking, speaking, reasoning, memory, vision and movement. Vascular dementia results from narrowing and blockage of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. It can also result from strokes caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain. In either case, high blood pressure may be the culprit.
- Mild cognitive impairment – Mild cognitive impairment is a transition stage between the changes in understanding and memory that come with aging and the more-serious problems caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Like dementia, it can result from blocked blood flow to the brain when high blood pressure damages arteries.
In a study published by the journal Neurology, researchers started with measuring the blood pressure of approximately 4,000 adults around age 50. When the adults reached age 76, MRIs were used to assess any blood vessel damage in their brains and memory and thinking ability tests were administered. The results: older adults who’d had high blood pressure in midlife had smaller brains, less gray matter, and lower thinking and memory scores.
High blood pressure is the leading cause of strokes. Both systolic and diastolic hypertension contribute to risk–the higher your pressure, the higher your risk. According to a Harvard study, hypertension increases a man’s risk of stroke by 220% with each 10 mm Hg rise in systolic pressure boosting the risk of ischemic stroke by 28% and of hemorrhagic stroke by 38%.
High blood pressure is “not just the No. 1, but also the No. 2 and No. 3 most important risk factor for stroke,” notes Dr. Sudha Seshadri, professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. “Stroke, because it takes out part of the brain, doubles the risk of having dementia.”
To help your brain stay healthy, it’s best to keep your blood pressure from ever getting too high in the first place. However, if you are currently suffering from hypertension, make the diet and lifestyle changes you need to, to lower your blood pressure. Because not only your heart, but your brain will reap the benefits as well.
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