Does High Blood Pressure Cause Dementia?

Each day, Dr. Walter Koroshetz, 65, takes a pill as part of his effort to help keep his brain healthy and sharp. The medicine isn’t some miracle drug or a vitamin to stave off memory loss. The pill is his blood pressure medication. He also keeps his blood pressure down by exercising and maintaining a healthy weight and diet. And, he is urging other people with high blood pressure to follow his lead.

Koroshetz, who directs the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, says “controlling high blood pressure helps him reduce his risk of dementia.” According to his team’s research, when blood pressure is high, dementia is more likely.

Here’s how the science works: Our blood flows through tiny, fragile blood vessels with a strong force. Over time, with uncontrolled high blood pressure, those blood vessels become weaker, get damaged, and start to build up cholesterol plaques. This can ultimately lead to silent strokes and areas of low blood flow to the brain. Those areas of low blood flow decrease the flow of blood to the neurons in the brain, and ultimately lead to dementia (most commonly, vascular dementia, which occurs when something blocks or reduces the flow of blood to brain cells.) High blood pressure also appears to increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which is associated with the accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain.

Vascular dementia risk factors are thought to be a primary cause of dementia — a bigger culprit than genetics, experts say. However, treatment for dementia typically occurs only after cognitive symptoms are detected, even among those with known risk factors such as hypertension.

High blood pressure is often called the silent killer

More awareness about the relationship between hypertension and dementia is needed, so Koroshetz is responsible for spearheading the Institute’s public health campaign called “Mind Your Risks.” His goal is to educate others on the link between high blood pressure, stroke, and dementia.

More than half of the people in the U.S. are living with uncontrolled high blood pressure. The “Mind Your Risks” campaign is meant to help the millions of people who have uncontrolled high blood pressure better understand the risks of high blood pressure and the link to dementia.

It is especially important to spread awareness now, as the definition of high blood pressure recently changed. High blood pressure used to be a top number (systolic) of 140 or a bottom number (diastolic) of 90. Last year, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology lowered the definition of high blood pressure down to a systolic of 130 or a diastolic of 80. This means that millions more people now are considered to have high blood pressure, although more people aren’t necessarily using medications.

Here are some changes you can make to lower your blood pressure:

  • Decreasing your sodium intake to 1500 mg or less will decrease your blood pressure.
  • Stick to the Mediterranean or DASH diets, which emphasize good fats, fruits and vegetables, and fish.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity — such as 150 minutes a week, or about 30 minutes most days of the week — can lower your blood pressure significantly. It’s important to be consistent because if you stop exercising, your blood pressure can rise again.
  • Lose weight. Blood pressure often increases as weight increases. Being overweight also can cause disrupted breathing while you sleep (sleep apnea), which further raises your blood pressure.
  • Drink less. Drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can actually raise blood pressure by several points. It can also reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
  • Quit smoking. Each cigarette you smoke increases your blood pressure for many minutes after you finish. Stopping smoking helps your blood pressure return to normal. Quitting smoking can reduce your risk of heart disease (and lung cancer and numerous other diseases) and improve your overall health.
  • Reduce stress. Chronic stress may contribute to high blood pressure. More research is needed to determine the effects of chronic stress on blood pressure. Occasional stress also can contribute to high blood pressure, especially if you react to stress by eating unhealthy food, drinking alcohol, or smoking.
  • Know your genetics. High blood pressure runs in families. Get everyone, even kids, checked out.
  • Monitor your blood pressure regularly. Home monitoring can help you keep tabs on your blood pressure, make certain your lifestyle changes are working, and alert you and your doctor to potential health complications. Blood pressure monitors are available widely and without a prescription. Talk to your doctor about home monitoring before you get started.

Stroke and Dementia

It’s not high just blood pressure you need to be concerned with. At least two large studies have revealed an alarming trend among stroke patients, as well. According to Koroshetz, “If you had a stroke, even a small stroke, your risk of dementia within the next two years was greatly magnified,” he says. “So there’s something about having a stroke that drives a lot of the processes that give rise to dementia.”

Get Treated for High Blood Pressure and Tested for Dementia

“If people knew about the link between dementia and high blood pressure, they might be more inclined to do something about it,” Koroshetz says. “Unfortunately, only about 50% of people who have hypertension are actually treated. So, there’s a lot to be said for trying to get high blood pressure under control.”

Have high blood pressure and want to see if your brain is affected? MRI scans may be able to detect early signs of brain damage caused by high blood pressure. Early detection could prompt interventions to lower blood pressure, whether via medication or lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, getting more exercise, and adopting a diet lower in sodium and higher in vegetables. You need to check your blood pressure, and if it’s high, you need to lower it. Do it early, because high blood pressure is treacherous and can damage your kidneys and retina, as well as your brain as this article has explained.

What Do You Do if You or a Loved One Has Dementia?

Were you or a loved one diagnosed with dementia? At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect your assets while maintaining your comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance (for eligible veterans and their families). If and when you or a family member receives a diagnosis of any type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Alzheimer’s Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Alzheimer’s Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Alzheimer’s Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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