Scientists have discovered that changes in blood pressure between middle age and old age may affect brain health later in life. People who had high blood pressure in midlife but low blood pressure later on in life were found to have a smaller brain volume and did not perform as well in memory and thinking tests. The study is published on 4 June in the journal Neurology.
The researchers used samples from 4,057 individuals from an Icelandic study which was started in 1967. Volunteers were born between 1907 and 1935 and had their blood pressure measured in midlife (average age of 50) and again in later life (average age of 76). At the later-life stage, the participants took memory and thinking tests and also underwent in-depth brain scans to measure brain volume and other indicators of brain health.
The researchers removed any individuals who had developed dementia from the analysis as a previous study had suggested that dementia may have a direct effect on blood pressure.
The study showed that memory and thinking skills in later life were poorer in people who had high blood pressure in midlife compared to those who did not. Participants with high midlife blood pressure also had smaller brain volumes later in life. However the study found that memory performance was lowest in people who had high blood pressure in midlife but low blood pressure in later life. These people also had a smaller brain volume than those whose blood pressure continued to be high in later life.
Conversely, people who had normal blood pressure in midlife but then developed higher blood pressure in later life performed well in the memory tests but did have other indicators of poorer brain health, such as signs of blood vessel damage and tiny bleeds in the brain.
Dr Laura Phipps, Science Communications Manager at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“Research suggests that lifestyle factors, including blood pressure, could be important modifiers of brain health. This study did not focus on dementia, but it suggests a complex relationship between mid and late life blood pressure, and memory performance later in life.
“As the study did not keep a continuous measurement of blood pressure between midlife and later life, it is hard to know exactly when and why changes in the brain may have occurred. It would be good to see more detailed investigations into how changes in blood pressure throughout life may impact on brain health.
“Evidence suggests that lifestyle factors such as a balanced diet, healthy weight, regular exercise and not smoking, may also help to keep our brains healthy as we get older. If you are concerned about your blood pressure, you should talk to your GP”