A high proportion of Australian adults have high blood pressure. Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure is a recognised risk factor for heart disease. But did you know that high blood pressure is also a significant risk factor for later life cognitive decline? When uncontrolled, high blood pressure can quietly damage your brain (as well as your body) for years before you start showing symptoms.
Studies show that having high blood pressure in your 40s, 50s and 60s can lead to cognitive decline in later life, and can negatively impact the ability to think, reason and remember.
The possibility that controlling cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure may help delay or prevent cognitive impairment is currently being investigated.
How does high blood pressure damage your brain?
While the link between a cardiovascular condition and your brain doesn’t seem obvious, it actually makes perfect sense. The brain receives about 20% of the body’s blood supply, receiving the nutrients and energy that it needs to function properly. Thus, if this blood flow is blocked or reduced, it can harm the brain. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause blood vessels to become narrowed, scarred or diseased, hampering blood flow to the brain. Decreased blood flow over time can slowly build up to larger problems if left untreated. It may take many years for this to occur, but occur it will – leading to brain issues that range from mild to fatal.
High blood pressure can potentially damage your brain in the following ways:
- Mild cognitive impairment. This condition is a more severe stage of the changes in memory and understanding that often accompany ageing, but it not as serious as the changes caused by dementia.
- Dementia. Limited blood flow to the brain caused by blocked or narrowed arteries can cause vascular dementia.
- Stroke. High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, thus depriving your brain of vital oxygen and nutrients. It can also cause blood clots to form in arteries leading to your brain, potentially leading to a stroke.
- Ministrokes (Transient ischemic attacks). This is a temporary disruption to the brain’s blood supply, often caused by blood clots or the hardened arteries typical of high blood pressure.
Other problems caused by high blood pressure
High blood pressure doesn’t just lead to cognitive decline. It can also cause:
- Kidney scarring
- Kidney failure
- Damaged and narrow arteries
- Heart failure
- Coronary artery disease
- Enlarged left heart
- Damage to your retina or fluid build-up under the retina
- Nerve damage to your optic nerve
- Sexual dysfunction
How can you help prevent high blood pressure from damaging your brain?
The first step is recognising that you suffer from high blood pressure. If you have a family history of the condition or suspect you might be showing symptoms, visit your GP to get checked and tested. The earlier you can get a handle on your blood pressure, the better your chances of reducing your risk of problems.
Once diagnosed, appropriate treatment and lifestyle changes can help control the condition and reduce your risk of life-threatening complications. Aggressive lifestyle intervention might be necessary, such as:
- Eating more leafy greens, berries and vegetables
- Eliminating processed and packaged foods
- Reducing salt intake
- Reducing stress
- Undertaking relaxation exercises
- Getting enough sleep
If these are not effective, you might need to take medication to help get your blood pressure under control.
So, there are some great reasons for middle aged and older people to keep a close eye on their blood pressure. Your brain will thank you in later years if you can get your blood pressure under control early – leading to a much happier and healthier old age.