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The Aging Brain: High Blood Pressure Kills Brain Cells

The aging brain is the focus of intensive study by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).


One area of interest to NIA researchers is the affect of high blood pressure on the cognitive ability of senior citizens. Specifically, what affect does hypertension have on the possible development of brain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.


Recently, in a nationwide study, NIA researchers used MRI’s to scan the brains of hundreds of participants in the National Institutes of Health’s Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT).  They found that intensively controlling a person’s blood pressure was more effective at slowing the accumulation of white matter lesions in the brain — compared to current standard treatments.


These results confirmed earlier findings by the NIA, which showed that intensive treatment lowered the chances developing mild cognitive impairment.

Intensively controlling your blood pressure through diet and exercise is the key to good brain health in your senior years.



The Aging Brain: Brain White Matter Kills

Brain white matter accumulation is a bad thing. It is made up of billions of thin nerve fibers, called axons, that connect the neurons with each other. The fibers are covered by myelin, a white fatty coating that protects axons from injury and speeds the flow of information transmissions.


Brain white matter lesions, appear as bright white on MRI scans, and represent an increase in water content. This indicates several negative changes in your brain, such as  thinning of the protective myelin coating and leaky brain blood vessels. These changes are connected to high blood pressure.


Several studies have also shown that high blood pressure relates to the accumulation of white brain matter lesions that lead to cognitive decline and dementia.


These observations were tested in a randomized clinical trial, called SPRINT Memory and Cognition in Decreased Hypertension. They examined whether controlling blood pressure levels could prevent or slow down the white matter lesion progression and aging brain disorders.



NIH funded study found link between blood pressure and white matter lesions. Arrows highlight examples of lesions seen on magnetic resonance imaging brain scans.
Scanning for White Matter Lesions NIH funded study found link between blood pressure and white matter lesions. Arrows highlight examples of lesions seen on magnetic resonance imaging brain scans.Courtesy of SPRINT MIND Investigators.



Blood Pressure Study Results

NIA researchers compared the effects of standard versus intensive blood pressure control on heart health and mortality. A group of 9,300 adults, aged 50+ with high risk for heart disease, were treated. One group received standard treatment — the second group received the intensive treatment.


In the standard treatment, systolic blood pressure was lowered to less than 140 mm Hg. For the intensive treatment group, systolic blood pressure was lowered to less than 120 mm Hg.


This study ran for 3.5 years and results showed that intensive treatment reduced the rates of death and cardiovascular disease.


Furthermore, the amount of brain white matter lesions in the intensive treated group was lower than the standard group.


These results show that intensive blood pressure control to under 120 mm Hg can lower your risk for cognitive decline. This is an effective way to ward off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in your senior years.

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