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Published on: August 18, 2019
The health of your heart affects the health of your brain.
That’s the emerging consensus from research into how controlling blood pressure may affect brain health later in life.
The latest study in this growing body of research came out this week. The researchers used MRI scans to check study participants’ brains for “white matter lesions,” which indicate various problems in the brain and are known to be tied to cognitive decline.
They found that people who had received intensive control of their blood pressure had fewer of these lesions than those who got standard blood pressure treatment.
Findings like these could one day lead to insights into how controlling blood pressure may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“This study adds to the growing body of information regarding the connection between heart health and brain health… However, more research is needed to understand if intensive blood pressure treatment can reduce the risk of dementia,” Maria Carrillo, PhD, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.
Her organization wasn’t directly involved in this new study, but it’s helping drive the research.
Carrillo said the Alzheimer’s Association provided more than $800,000 in grant money to fund the SPRINT MIND 2.0 study, which she said “will determine if intensive blood pressure treatment has an impact on dementia risk.”
The results of the first iteration of the SPRINT MIND study, which stands loosely for “systolic blood pressure intervention trial — memory and cognition in decreased hypertension,” were published in January.
It found that intensive blood pressure control for adults did not significantly reduce the risk of probable dementia, but that it did have an impact on reducing mild cognitive impairment.
Other studies have also observed some sort of link.
A 2008 European study, for example, suggested that lowering blood pressure did have a benefit.
In the results for the SPRINT MIND study, the researchers note that the evidence is stronger that lowering blood pressure in middle age may have more of an impact than lowering it later in life.
At the time those results were published in January, Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, said, “Dementia continues to be a large public health challenge and based on the primary results of this study, we still have yet to find an intervention strategy proven to reduce the risk of dementia.”
“Nevertheless,” he added, “the secondary results showing that intensive lowering of blood pressure may reduce risk for [mild cognitive impairment], a known risk factor for dementia, gives us additional avenues to explore on the path to prevention.”
That further exploration is what these latest studies are taking on.
“Through the SPRINT MIND trial and related research, we’re learning more about the impact of intensive blood pressure treatment on the biology of the brain and cognitive performance,” Carrillo said.
On the understanding whether there is a link between intensive blood pressure treatment and reduced risk of dementia, she said, “The good news is this research is already happening.”
Intensive blood pressure control is treatment that reduces blood pressure below 120 mm Hg, which is the level that is considered normal.
Standard treatment reduces it below 140 mm Hg, which is the line between stage 1 and stage 2 hypertension, or high blood pressure.
At stage 1, lifestyle changes are typically recommended, while people in stage 2 likely need medications, according to the American Heart Association.
Lowering blood pressure is good for your heart, but how much it’s connected to brain health is still coming into focus.
So, whether and how to use blood pressure control to reduce risk of dementia or other age-related brain damage is something that will need to be decided on an individual basis with a doctor, Carrillo said.
“High blood pressure in midlife is a known risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia,” she said. “The Alzheimer’s Association recommends that everyone should have a conversation with their physician about how to effectively maintain healthy blood pressure as part of an overall brain-healthy lifestyle.”
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