There are lots of “young-ish” people—say, people in their 30s or 40s—who have been told by their doctors that they have borderline high blood pressure and whose reaction is basically, “Eh, whatever.”
If this describes you—or a sibling or child of yours—I want you to know that this youngish person with highish blood pressure is committing suicide of the brain.
That’s because, as a new study shows, even slightly high blood pressure starts eating up the brain even when a person is quite young.
There generally aren’t any symptoms, and the person looks and feels fine (for now).
But here’s where the mental trouble starts…
HOW HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE HURTS THE BRAIN
Most blood pressure research focuses on older people, so researchers were interested in exploring its effects on younger individuals. In an analysis of data from the famous Framingham Heart Study, they examined the neurological effects of systolic blood pressure—the top number in blood pressure readings—on adults with an average age of 39.
What they found should be considered a wake-up call for some younger folks. Using high-tech scans (a traditional MRI and a special type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging), Owen Carmichael, PhD, a coauthor of the study, and his colleagues found that the higher a person’s blood pressure, the lower the volume of gray matter in the brain and the lesser the structural “integrity” of the white matter. (I’ll explain what that means in a second.) So those with hypertension (a reading of 140/90 or higher) had more cognitive damage than those with prehypertension (a reading between 120/80 and 139/89)…those with prehypertension had more than those with “normal” blood pressure (a reading under 120/80)…and even those with “high-normal” blood pressure had more than those with “low-normal” blood pressure.
Gray matter is like a set of computers that perform the calculations that enable you to remember things, concentrate, follow a sequence of events, speak, see and hear, for example. When you have less gray matter, it’s like having fewer computers to do those calculations, so it’s harder to do those brain-related tasks that I mentioned above. White matter, on the other hand, is like the Internet wiring that allows the gray matter “computers” to communicate with each other and do those mental tasks efficiently. When the integrity of the white matter is compromised, it’s as if your brain wiring has been frayed. So that also makes performing those brain-related tasks mentioned above more difficult.
Now, these aren’t effects that you would necessarily notice in your 30s or 40s—you won’t suddenly start forgetting your children’s names or getting lost in your own house, said Dr. Carmichael. But if blood pressure isn’t controlled, the negative effects begin—today—and then worsen with age. This can make you more susceptible to serious cognitive conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
GET YOUR NUMBERS DOWN
The great news, though, is that prehypertension (and even high-normal blood pressure) is very treatable. Making certain lifestyle changes (such as, of course, eating healthier foods and exercising more) and, as a last resort, even taking a medication (such as a thiazide diuretic, beta-blocker, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor or calcium channel blocker) can lower your blood pressure and prevent any further brain damage. Is it possible to reverse damage that’s already been done? Dr. Carmichael said that the answer isn’t known, but hopefully future research will address it.
Once again, if your blood pressure is 140/90 or more, it’s high. If it’s under 120/80, it’s normal. If it’s between 120/80 and 139/89, you have prehypertension—which means that you don’t have high blood pressure but are likely to develop it in the future. Even people with prehypertension in the study had more signs of brain damage than those with normal blood pressure—so you should take even a borderline reading such as that seriously.
Don’t let your age give you a false sense of security.