Nearly half of U.S. adults are living with high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A new study shows that if you experience this condition from youth, it could significantly affect your brain health in middle age and beyond.
“Identifying early risk factors and early changes in the brain will have a major impact on future clinical and public health priorities related to the looming epidemic of dementia,” Lenore J. Launer, PhD, chief, Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Sciences Intramural Research Program at the National Institute on Aging, told Healthline.
Participants were followed for 30 years
Researchers looked at nearly 1,000 people to identify early risk factors and brain changes that indicate cognitive issues in later life.
Launer, the study’s corresponding author, said the study involved 853 Black and white men and women ages 18 to 30 for about 30 years.
Launer and team used MRI to examine changes in the brain’s structure and blood flow that influence cognition.
They found that participants who started with a higher mean (average) arterial blood pressure (MAP) and those whose pressure was lower but steadily increasing showed less blood flow and more adverse changes in their brains as they aged.
High blood pressure can affect anyone
“At this time, we are seeing it’s more than just one demographic. Many people can have this problem,” said Ilan Shapiro, MD, chief health correspondent and medical affairs officer at AltaMed Health Services.
Shapiro explained that this could be caused by increasing weight, stress, and factors tied to lifestyle.
“Also, there are people who have traits that contribute to this issue, such as kidney disease, heart problems, or other chronic conditions,” he added. “Increases in blood pressure are quite common, but the question is which demographic is receiving treatment and which are not.”
According to the CDC, high blood pressure is more common in non-Hispanic Black adults than any other ethnic group in the United States. It’s important to note that the stress of enduring racism and racist systems might play a part in developing high blood pressure beyond genetic factors.
High blood pressure leads to brain disease
Researchers weren’t surprised by the findings.
“Because we have known for a while that high levels of blood pressure lead to pathologic changes in the brain, measurable even in mid-life,” Launer said.
She noted that control of blood pressure levels has, so far, been the most “robust and promising candidate” to target for the prevention of future cognitive impairment. Still, it wasn’t known if changes from youth to middle age provided additional information about risk.
“This study further refines our understanding that especially for younger people, it is not sufficient to measure blood pressure once, but to follow the change in blood pressure over time,” she continued.
How blood pressure affects the brain
“The best way to describe this is that our brain has pipes, meaning blood vessels, and we need the appropriate pressure to help with normal blood flow,” said Shapiro.
He explained that when blood pressure increases, the brain and structures around it begin developing barriers to reduce it.
“In response to this, the blood vessels start to get harder or create smaller vessels to create resistance to stop the high pressure,” he said.
Shapiro warned that this could lead to an aneurysm (bulging blood vessel) and other issues that increase proteins around the brain, reduce oxygen, and lead to problems in memory and other issues mentioned in this study.
Shapiro said blood pressure is determined by what we do and how we live.
However, he noted that diseases affecting the kidneys and other parts of the body could also increase blood pressure.
“What’s most important is to identify it in young people and make the lifestyle changes [needed] to regulate blood pressure,” Shapiro said, adding that increasing obesity in the United States is accelerating this issue.
The main factor is prevention, said Shapiro, and making sure that we eat well-balanced and nutritious meals and get regular physical activity.
“Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise can make a big difference in regulating the body’s functions,” he said.
Addressing inactivity due to computer and gaming console use, Shapiro said it’s important to set screen time limits and make sure young people get adequate amounts of sleep.
Reducing salt intake and maintaining a healthy weight are other ways to keep blood pressure under control.
“Often, we can regulate high blood pressure by reducing salt in meals, being mindful of what we are eating, and managing a healthy weight,” he said. “And it’s important to have outlets to manage stress levels.”
The bottom line
New research finds that high or steadily increasing blood pressure in our younger years is associated with brain changes that could cause cognitive problems and dementia.
Experts say that blood pressure is influenced by lifestyle factors that we can change to prevent this from happening.
They also say it’s critical to identify and treat high blood pressure from younger ages to reduce the impact of a looming dementia crisis.