Having high blood pressure in your 30s damages your brain in old age

Having high blood pressure in your mid-30s ‘raises your risk of suffering cognitive decline and dementia in later life’

  • Experts have long warned raised blood pressure can impact the brain’s function
  • A new study shows the damage can be done decades before symptoms appear
  • It used information from 500 people tracked from their birth in March 1946

High blood pressure in your mid-30s raises the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in later life, research suggests.

Experts have long warned that raised blood pressure can impact on the functioning of the brain.

But a new study led by University College London shows the damage can be done decades before symptoms appear.

They believe there is a ‘sensitive period’ in early middle-age – roughly between the ages of 36 and 53 – in which high blood pressure is particularly damaging to the brain.

Experts have long warned raised blood pressure can impact on the functioning of the brain

The researchers used information from a group of 500 people all tracked from their birth in the same week in March 1946.

The participants had their blood pressure taken throughout their life and over the last few years, when aged between 69 and 71, underwent scans of their brains.

The researchers found those who had high or rising blood pressure between the ages of 36 and 53 showed a decrease in brain volume by the age of 71.

They also had bigger gaps in the white matter – the ‘wiring’ that connects the different parts of the brain.

The academics, writing in the Lancet Neurology journal, said these are warnings signs of cognitive decline and dementia.

High blood pressure – known by the medical term hypertension – affects one in three adults, about 17million people in Britain and 75million in the US.

Because hypertension has no symptoms until it is too late, only half of people even know they are at risk.

Currently GPs routinely test blood pressure as part of the NHS Health Check programme – known as the ‘mid-life MOT’ – which start at age 40.

But the researchers said the findings show blood pressure should be targeted earlier than this.

Lead author Professor Jonathan Schott of UCL, said: ‘This unique group of individuals, who have contributed to research their entire lives, has already shaped our understanding of the factors influencing health throughout life.

‘The findings suggest that blood pressure even in our 30s could have a knock-on effect on brain health four decades later.

‘We found that higher and rising blood pressure between the ages of 36 and 53 had the strongest associations with smaller brain volume and increases in white matter brain lesions in later life.

‘We speculate that these changes may, over time, result in a decline in brain function for example impairments in thinking and behaviour, so making the case for targeting blood pressure in mid-life, if not earlier.’ 

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, which funded the study, said: ‘Although this study must continue to assess the impact of blood pressure on dementia risk, the findings shed new light on the mechanism by which hypertension could damage the brain.

‘As the participants in this study are identical ages and have been followed throughout life, the researchers can gain robust insights into the factors influencing their brain health.

‘High blood pressure in midlife is one of the strongest lifestyle risk factors for dementia, and one that is in our control to easily monitor and manage.

‘Research is already suggesting that more aggressive treatment of high blood pressure in recent years could be improving the brain health of today’s older generations.

‘We must continue to build on this insight by detecting and managing high blood pressure even for those in early midlife.’  

WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF I HAVE HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE?

High blood pressure, or hypertension, rarely has noticeable symptoms. But if untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

More than one in four adults in the UK have high blood pressure, although many won’t realise it.

The only way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to have your blood pressure checked.

Blood pressure is recorded with two numbers. The systolic pressure (higher number) is the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body.

The diastolic pressure (lower number) is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels. They’re both measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg).

As a general guide:

  • high blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHg or higher
  • ideal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg
  • low blood pressure is considered to be 90/60mmHg or lower
  • A blood pressure reading between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg could mean you’re at risk of developing high blood pressure if you don’t take steps to keep your blood pressure under control.

If your blood pressure is too high, it puts extra strain on your blood vessels, heart and other organs, such as the brain, kidneys and eyes.

Persistent high blood pressure can increase your risk of a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as:

  • heart disease
  • heart attacks
  • strokes
  • heart failure
  • peripheral arterial disease
  • aortic aneurysms
  • kidney disease
  • vascular dementia

Source: NHS

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