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High blood pressure in midlife impacts brain health years later

New research led by University College London suggests that early blood pressure problems have a negative effect on brain health later in life. The investigation was focused on data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD), which is the longest-running birth cohort study in the UK, 

The sub-study, Insight 46, was designed to identify early signs of dementia among individuals in the years leading up to their 70s. The research will provide experts with a unique perspective on specific risk factors that may impact brain health.

While previous research has linked high blood pressure in midlife to an increased risk of dementia, the mechanism which underlies this association has remained unclear. 

The current study followed 502 individuals from the NSHD, who were all born in the same week in 1946. The participants were free from dementia at the start of the study, and most of the individuals underwent scans to evaluate their brain health. 

The brain scans allowed the researchers to search for levels of a key Alzheimer’s protein called amyloid. The scans also showed the size of the brain and the extent of any blood vessel damage. In addition, the NSHD data included measurements of the participants’ blood pressure at various ages from 36 to 69.

The analysis revealed that higher blood pressure at the age of 53, or a gradual rise in blood pressure from 43 to 53, were both associated with more evidence of blood vessel damage or “mini strokes” in the brain by age 70. On the other hand, blood pressure was not associated with the level of amyloid protein in the brain or any memory problems at a later age. 

“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,” said Professor Jonathan Schott. 

“The Insight 46 study has allowed us to reveal more about the complex relationship between blood pressure and brain health. The findings suggest that blood pressure even in our 30s could have a knock-on effect on brain health four decades later.”

“We now know that damage caused by high blood pressure is unlikely to be driven through the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein amyloid, but through changes in blood vessels and the brain’s architecture. The findings show that blood pressure monitoring and interventions aimed at maximising brain health later in life need to be targeted at least by early midlife.”

Dr. Carol Routledge explained that, even though the Insight 46 study is not yet complete, the initial findings are shedding new light on the mechanism by which hypertension could damage the brain. 

“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,” said Dr. Routledge. 

“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.”

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Neurology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

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