Heart to Head Series: The Link between High Blood Pressure and Alzheimer’s Disease

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“Advances in our understanding of the role of cardiovascular risks have shown them to be closely associated with cognitive impairment and dementia. Because many cardiovascular risks are modifiable, it may be possible to maintain brain health and to prevent dementia later in life.”   

American Heart Association/American Stroke Association Presidential Advisory, (2017, October), “Defining Optimal Brain Health in Adults”

The Link between Blood Pressure and Alzheimer’s Disease

Through research, we know that high blood pressure (also called hypertension), increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, new research has shown that high blood pressure can also impact your brain health. For example, people with high blood pressure may be at higher risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that causes a mild to moderate level of difficulty with thinking, remembering and reasoning. Even further, living with high blood pressure may increase a person’s risk of forming protein plaques and tangles in the brain – primary indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. Overall, dementia is a severe decline in memory and cognitive functions, such as language and concentration, which interferes with everyday living. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all dementia diagnoses. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease worsen as the disease progresses and impairs a person’s memory, thinking skills, and behavior.

Alzheimer’s Disease Research

As many as 5.5 million Americans over the age of 65 are living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States (www.alz.org).  While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and treatment therapies for the disease remain limited, scientists do know that the brain undergoes changes long before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear. Research also indicates that there are lifestyle behaviors throughout a person’s life that can affect brain health. Examples of these lifestyle behaviors include regular physical exercise, brain exercise, nutrition, and managing our cardiovascular health (including cholesterol and blood pressure).

The SPRINT-MIND clinical trial conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association indicates that these factors may provide a window of opportunity to prevent or delay a decline in cognitive function and the development of dementia-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. This information better equips us with strategies and lifestyle choices that can improve overall health and lower our risk of developing dementia-related diseases and cognitive impairment as we age.   

Blood Pressure to Brain Link

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), the brain receives 20% of the body’s blood supply. The vast network of blood vessels inside of the brain carries oxygen, glucose and other nutrients essential to proper brain function. Interruption of blood flow to the brain can cause cerebrovascular damage that could lead to stroke, MCI or dementia. A potential interruption of blood flow to the brain could be the result of hypertension (uncontrolled high blood pressure).    

The American Heart Association (AHA) states that new diagnostic guidelines for a healthy blood pressure, in both younger and older adults, is when the top number (the systolic) is less than 130mm and the bottom number (diastolic) is lower than 80mm. This changed from the standard 140/90 that had been in place since the early 1930’s.

While there is no scientific evidence that hypertension causes Alzheimer’s disease, research has shown that interruption of blood flow to the brain may cause damage to the brain; and that damage to the brain could lead to higher risk for stroke, cognitive impairment, and vascular dementia.

Controlling your Blood Pressure

High blood pressure can contribute to an array of health problems. However, you can make steps toward a healthy lifestyle that can help you manage your blood pressure, lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems: 

  1. Consult your physician to set healthy blood pressure goals and determine if blood pressure medication is necessary.
  2. Shed that extra weight!  Studies show that for every 11 pounds, you can reduce your systolic blood pressure by 4.4 points.
  3. Eat right! Try a healthy diet high in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain, fish and nuts.
  4. Reduce your sodium intake. Replace salt with a salt substitute such as Mrs. Dash or No Salt. Avoid canned vegetables that are high in sodium.
  5. Quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about a smoking cessation program.
  6. Check your blood pressure regularly at home. Purchase an automatic blood pressure cuff. They range in price and can be purchased at your local pharmacy or drugstore.
  7. Exercise and increase your physical activity. Just 15-30 minutes a day of physical activity can make a difference. Take a walk.  Go on physically active outings with friends, like walking the mall. Use the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. Take a class at your local fitness center or YMCA.

Summing it up:

Research sets forth a potential relationship between high blood pressure and cognitive functioning. Making healthy lifestyle choices can improve your immediate health and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other health issues so that you can live you best life. Your health is your wealth!

Write to Chrishun Brown at Chrishun_m_brown@rush.edu

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