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How can we promote healthy brain aging?

High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for brain blood vessel disease. High blood pressure has been associated with clinically apparent stroke, diffuse white matter disease, and silent stroke on MRI brain images and brain examination at autopsy. These in turn have been linked to cognitive decline and dementia. For many reasons, treating high blood pressure and keeping it under control is good for the brain.

Microscope for Research of High Blood Pressure and Dementia

Research

Check out the current scientific research on high blood pressure and dementia.

How stroke prevention promotes healthy brain aging

Throughout life, a person’s mental faculties are in a constant state of change. For example, mathematicians reach their maximum mental productivity in their third decade. Most people begin to experience very gradual decline in mental abilities as a normal part of healthy aging. Normal age-related changes in cognition are in part due to the limited capacity of the brain’s nerve cells to regenerate. Indeed, our brains become smaller with age. However, after our seventh or eighth decade, an accelerated loss of mental function may signify onset of dementia or less severe cognitive decline.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Current research is exploring how brain cells age and the biologic changes that underlie Alzheimer’s disease, with the ultimate goal of developing treatments and preventive therapies. Another common diagnosis is vascular dementia, which is caused by widespread damage to the brain’s blood vessels. Vascular dementia usually occurs due to the cumulative impact of multiple strokes, including small infarcts which go unnoticed over time.

About 20 percent of the blood circulating through our bodies enters the brain where a highly intricate network of blood vessels distributes oxygen and nutrients to billions of brain cells. When high blood pressure pounds vulnerable brain blood vessels year after year, those vessels become scarred, narrowed, and diseased with arteriosclerosis. This can cause ischemic stroke damage due to lack of adequate blood flow and also upset the delicate balance between the nerve cells’ need for nutrients and what the bloodstream can supply. The most well-known consequence of uncontrolled high blood pressure is stroke, and for years scientists have known that stroke increases the risk of developing dementia. The good news is that controlling hypertension can prevent stroke. In fact, a 10-point reduction in systolic blood pressure can result in a one-third reduction in stroke risk.

Some scientists believe that the hypertension-related changes in brain blood vessels that contribute to stroke also make people more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s dementia. Decades of scientific study have shown that controlling high blood pressure reduces the likelihood of vascular disease. This research offers promise that we may be able to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by employing what we already know about preventing stroke.

Two doctors looking at a brain scan
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