A new study suggests that treating high blood pressure in young and middle-aged adults may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease later on, especially in men. Photo by agilemktg1/Flickr
Be forewarned: High blood pressure in your 30s may lead to poorer brain health in your 70s.
A new study suggests that treating the condition in young and middle-aged adults may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease later on, especially in men.
For the study, researchers examined brain scans of older adults who had high blood pressure in their 30s. They were compared to older adults with normal blood pressure.
Those in the high blood pressure group had two key markers associated with dementia -- significantly lower regional brain volumes and worse white matter integrity.
Negative changes in some brain regions, including decreased gray matter volume and frontal cortex volume, were stronger in men.
Researchers said the differences may be related to the protective benefits of estrogen before menopause.
"Treatment for dementia is extremely limited, so identifying modifiable risk and protective factors over the life course is key to reducing disease burden," said first author Kristen George, an assistant professor of public health sciences at University of California, Davis.
George noted that 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," she said in a university news release.
Data for the study came from 427 people who participated in aging studies conducted between 1964 and 1985. Participants included Asian, Black, Hispanic and white individuals.
Two blood pressure readings taken when participants were between the ages of 30 and 40 offered researchers information about whether their blood pressure was high, trending toward high or normal at that time.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans done between 2017 and 2022 gave the team information about participants' brain health.
The scans of participants who had high blood pressure or who were on the verge of it had less cerebral gray matter volume and less volume in the frontal cortex, as well as lower fractional anisotropy, a measure of brain connectivity. Scores for men with high blood pressure were lower than those for women.
A normal blood pressure level is below 130/80 mmHg. About 47% of American adults have high blood pressure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About half of men and 44% of women have high blood pressure. Rates are highest in Black adults (56%), followed by white adults (48%), Asian adults (46%) and Hispanic adults (39%).
Between the ages of 35 and 64, the study said, Black adults are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than their white counterparts.
"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," said senior author Rachel Whitmer, a professor of public health sciences and neurology and chief of the Division of Epidemiology at UC Davis.
"We are excited to be able to continue following these participants and to uncover more about what one can do in early life to set yourself up for healthy brain aging in late life," she said in the release.
Researchers offered several caveats about their findings.
They noted they were unable to examine racial and ethnic differences because the study population was small, and they recommended interpreting results on sex differences with caution. In addition, they noted that MRI data was available only from one point late in life and could not provide specific evidence of neurodegeneration over time.
The study was published recently in JAMA Network Open.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on high blood pressure.
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