The Blood Pressure-Alzheimer's Connection

It's been well documented that chronic high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) can lead to a series of serious medical problems, including coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and kidney failure. Now, results from a study published in Neurology show that it may also cause memory problems-and raise the risk of Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible, progressive brain disease.

The study analyzed data on stroke risk from nearly 20,000 people, ages 45 and older, from across the country, participating in a stroke study but who had never had a stroke. Study participants were given blood pressure tests and assessed for brain function. Results from the analysis found that people with a high diastolic blood pressure number (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading, which measures the force exerted on arteries when the heart is at rest between beats) were more likely to experience problems with memory and thinking skills than those with normal diastolic readings.

What's more, for every ten-point increase in the reading, the odds of having cognitive problems rose by 7 percent. According to the study findings, when diastolic blood pressure rises, it causes the arterial walls in the brain to thicken faster than they would normally do with age. This may reduce blood flow and lead to tissue death, resulting in subtle brain damage. The systolic number (the top number in a blood pressure reading, which measures the force on the arteries when the heart beats) did not show a connection to brain function. A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mmHg (mmHg is millimeters of mercury, the units used to measure blood pressure).

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, any level above 120/80 raises your risk for high blood pressure. The good news is, making just a few lifestyle changes can go a long way to reducing your risk for high blood pressure and cognitive decline as you age. Here's how:

  • Lose extra pounds. Blood pressure often increases with weight. Losing just ten pounds can help reduce your blood pressure significantly.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercising at least 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week can lower your blood pressure by four to nine millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating a diet high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and low in saturated fat can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mmHg.