SACRAMENTO — UC Davis researchers have found that uncontrolled high blood pressure damages the structure and function of brains among people in their 40s or even younger.
The study found accelerated brain aging among those in early middle age with hypertension and prehypertension. That included damage to the structural integrity of the brain’s white matter, which includes the wiring carrying messages throughout the brain, and volume of its gray matter, according to a news release.
A typical 33-year-old with high blood pressure had the brain health of a 40-year-old with normal blood pressure, the researchers found.
Vascular brain injury “develops insidiously over the lifetime with discernible effects,” the researchers concluded in what is believed to be the first study to demonstrate structural brain damage in that age group. The paper was published online this week in the journal The Lancet Neurology.
The study’s senior author, Charles DeCarli, said the study sends a clear message:
“People can influence their late-life brain health by knowing and treating their blood pressure at a young age, when you wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about it. The people in our study were cognitively normal, so a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean anything,” said DeCarli, a professor of neurology and director of the UCD Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
Damage to the brain’s white matter has previously been linked to cognitive decline. This study provides evidence, the authors write, that lowering blood pressure among people in middle age and in the young elderly can help prevent late-life cognitive decline and dementia.
Normal blood pressure is defined as systolic pressure (top number) below 120 and diastolic pressure (bottom number) below 80. Prehypertension is a blood pressure range with a top number between 120 to 139 and bottom number from 80 to 89. Blood pressures of 140 over 90 or greater are considered high.
The research sought to decipher the age of onset, extent and nature of the effects of elevated systolic blood pressure on cognitive decline among 579 participants in the Framingham study, a longitudinal evaluation begun more than 60 years ago of the cardiovascular health of the residents of Framingham, Mass., now in its third generation of participants. They were 39, on average, when they join the study.
Magnetic resonance imaging was used to determine the participants’ brain health. In those with hypertension, the axons — the biological wires — were reduced in the frontal lobe by an average of 6.5 percent. They also had 9 percent less gray matter in their frontal and temporal lobes, on average.
The researchers did not offer an explanation for the damage. They did note that high blood pressure makes arteries stiffen, causing blood flowing to the brain to pulse more strongly. This stresses the brain’s blood vessels and may make it more difficult for them to nourish brain tissue, according to the news release.
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden