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Researchers say even a short stint of high blood pressure at a young age can affect cognitive decline at a later age. Sisoje / Getty Images
  • Researchers say high blood pressure at any age can increase a person’s risk for dementia later in life.
  • They add that the risk isn’t affected by how long someone has high blood pressure.
  • Experts say there are ways to reduce your risk for high blood pressure, ranging from medications to exercise to diet.

High blood pressure at any age may speed up cognitive decline.

That’s the conclusion of a study published today in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

Researchers say they found that even slightly elevated blood pressure in middle age or older was linked to faster cognitive decline.

“We initially anticipated that the negative effects of hypertension on cognitive function would be more critical when hypertension started at a younger age,” Sandhi Maria Barreto, PhD, an author of the study, said in a press release. Barreto is also a professor of medicine at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

“However, our results show similar accelerated cognitive performance decline whether hypertension started in middle age or at older ages,” she explained.

“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.”

In the United States, nearly half of adults have high blood pressure, also called hypertension. Just one in four American adults with high blood pressure have their condition under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The researchers said that they found that adults who have uncontrolled hypertension often experienced faster decline in memory and cognitive function than adults with hypertension that was well controlled.

“In addition to other proven benefits of blood pressure control, our results highlight the importance of diagnosing and controlling hypertension in patients of any age to prevent or slow down cognitive decline,” Barreto said.

“Our results also reinforce the need to maintain lower blood pressure levels throughout life, since even prehypertension levels were associated with cognitive decline,” she added.

In undertaking the research, Barreto and her colleagues analyzed data from a study that captured information regarding blood pressure and cognitive health function of more than 7,000 adults in Brazil.

The average age of the participants was 59 at the start of the study. The participants were followed for 4 years and underwent tests of their memory, executive function, and verbal fluency.

The researchers said they found that hypertension with no use of medications was associated with a quicker decline in cognitive performance in middle-aged and older adults.

They also found that cognitive decline occurred regardless of the length of time the person experienced hypertension, suggesting that even a small duration of high blood pressure can impact a person’s cognitive function.

Dr. Parveen Garg, a cardiologist at Keck School of Medicine of USC in Los Angeles, said that although the results aren’t surprising, the findings were a reminder that even a small amount of hypertension can have an impact.

“[The researchers] had a relatively short follow-up. They actually assessed their cognitive function only 4 years apart, and they still found significant changes just within a 4-year time period, and I think that’s impressive,” Garg told Healthline.

“It’s impressive in the sense that it should really tell everyone how much of an impact high blood pressure can have, and it doesn’t take so long for the impact to be felt. So early recognition and treatment is crucial,” he added.

The Brazilian study is the latest in a body of research that links vascular health with brain function.

“There is strong evidence that hypertension is linked to brain health. Hypertension is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major contributor to the pathogenesis of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Donna Arnett, PhD, MSPH, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, told Healthline.

Blood pressure refers to the pressure of blood pushing against artery walls as blood is carried from the heart to other organs in the body.

Blood travels through the arteries in the brain carrying oxygen to tissues. If not enough blood travels to these tissues, not enough oxygen is delivered, and the brain tissue can be damaged.

This can lead to problems within the brain.

“Despite comprising only 2 percent of the body’s weight, the brain uses 15 to 20 percent of the body’s blood supply to power over 100 trillion synaptic connections at any given moment,” Dr. Ryan Townley, a neurologist at the University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline.

“Neurons are highly metabolic, meaning they are constantly requiring energy to function, and fresh oxygenated blood is vital to that energy supply.

“A large role of brain cells involves clearing the neuronal waste products we accumulate, including the misfolded proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s disease,” he added. “If the vascular pipes that feed this thirsty organ start to become impaired, the neuron’s ability to maintain order will become impaired.”

The Brazilian researchers said that treating high blood pressure effectively at any age reduced or prevented the acceleration in cognitive decline.

Townley says there are a number of options to effectively treat hypertension.

“There are over 10 classes of medications to choose from and many that are very well tolerated. In most cases, only one blood pressure medication is needed with additional lifestyle changes. In more resistant cases, we may use up to three or four medications that work in different ways to lower blood pressure,” he said.

“In addition to medications, there are many lifestyle recommendations to consider: a healthy diet, regular exercise, limiting sedentary periods, regular sleep, and treating sleep apnea, losing weight, and stopping smoking,” he added.

High blood pressure is often referred to as the silent killer, in that there are often no obvious symptoms to suggest something is wrong. Experts say it’s crucial people get regular checkups to monitor their blood pressure.

Garg says the study is an important reminder that high blood pressure isn’t just about the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

“What I think gets lost is that high blood pressure has such a harmful effect on so many other things, you don’t necessarily need to have a heart attack or a stroke for the damage to happen,” he said.

“That is where I think we can all do a better job to better emphasize how important it is for us to have our blood pressure monitored and treated if necessary.”