High blood pressure and brain health

Yes, high blood pressure and brain health are closely related, especially as we age. Here’s why:

Lesions in the white matter of our brains, often called hyper-intensity lesions, are damaged areas of the brain responsible for transmitting information from one part of the brain to another. Interestingly, these  brain lesions are more common with age.

In fact, ten to twenty percent of 60-year-olds have them, and they’re more present in 70, 80 and 90-year olds, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

As hyper-intensity lesions accumulate in the brain, they can lead to functional changes such as depression, problems with balance, bladder control, and dementia.  Recently, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Calhoun Cardiology Center found that lowering blood pressure may be the key to preventing these lesions. Subjects in the school’s study found that those with lower blood pressure developed 40 percent fewer white matter hyper-intensity lesions than those with higher blood pressure.

In a related study (Circulation journal), adults age 75 and older with hypertension (high blood pressure) who were able to lower their systolic blood pressure to 130 (with or without medication) developed fewer brain lesions than those who lowered their blood pressure to 145.

In addition to brain benefits, the study also found that the group with lower blood pressure had fewer cardiovascular events, including arrhythmias, heart failure and heart attacks.

Some physicians use age as “an excuse” to let higher blood pressure numbers slide. However, in 2017 the American Heart Association (AHA) revised their guidelines and set the generally approved threshold for high systolic blood pressure at 130 for all adults, regardless of age.

Even so, as much as 46 percent of American adults have high blood pressure under the new AHA guidelines.

“That’s a huge percentage,” cautions Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “My recommendation for brain health is to regularly have your blood pressure checked. Monitor your numbers, and do what you can to keep those numbers moving down, especially if you are overweight or over age 60. Not only will getting more exercise help, but you can also keep your blood pressure trending lower by eating fewer sugars, starches, fatty meats, and sodas, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.”