Blood Pressure and Alzheimer’s Disease: Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain

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It’s important to monitor your blood pressure and keep it within normal levels to prevent life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke. But you might not know that maintaining a normal blood pressure is also important for brain health and can help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Over time, high blood pressure (hypertension) causes blood vessels to thicken or become weaker. This makes them less able to carry oxygen-rich blood to your body’s tissues. Lack of oxygen prevents the tissues from functioning properly and can lead to tissue death. When brain tissue dies, it can cause decreased cognitive function, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

While lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet can make a big difference in managing blood pressure, genetics and other factors such as smoking also contribute to increased blood pressure in older adults. Some researchers are studying the role of blood pressure medication in preventing or delaying dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent study looked at the link between taking medication for high blood pressure and developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This study compared more than 31,000 adults age 55 and older in the U.S., France, Iceland and Netherlands. The researchers compared people with normal and high blood pressure. None of them had a history of dementia.

The people with high blood pressure who took blood pressure medication—five major types of drugs were used in the study—were 12% less likely to develop dementia and 16% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared to the people with high blood pressure who did not take medication. In the group with normal blood pressure, there wasn’t any difference between the people who took medication and those who didn’t when it came to developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It wasn’t the medication itself that helped protect their brains; it was regulating blood pressure that made a difference. The bottom line: Using medication to lower blood pressure also helped preserve brain function.

There is still some debate around how best to treat cognitive decline later in life and the role of blood pressure medications in reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Personal treatment plans based on each person’s physiology play a big part in maintaining brain function throughout your life. However, it seems clear that the cerebral benefit of exercise, proper nutrition and a healthy cardiovascular system is a no-brainer.   

Casey Gilman, PhD, is a science writer and freelance journalist. She earned her doctorate in evolutionary ecology and was the 2016 American Physiological Society-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at The Philadelphia Inquirer


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