Changes in blood pressure in those as young as 36 are linked to poorer brain health later in life, according to new research.
Data for the new study came from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD), the longest running birth cohort in the U.K. Called Insight 46, the new study is designed to follow more than 500 birth cohort members to look for early signs and risk factors for dementia as they reach their 70s.
Blood pressure in midlife has previously been linked to a higher risk of dementia, but the mechanism by which this happens, and the time when blood pressure is most important, remain to be fully understood, researchers noted.
To answer these questions, the research team followed 502 individuals who were all born in the same week in 1946.
The participants were free from dementia at the start of the study, with 465 undergoing brain scans to assess their brain health. The researchers were able to measure their blood pressure at ages 36, 43, 53, 60-64 and 69 years.
The brain scans looked for levels of a key Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid, in the brain, according to the researchers. The scans also assessed the size of the brain — an indicator of brain health — and the presence of blood vessel damage in the brain.
The results showed that higher blood pressure at the age of 53 and faster rises in blood pressure between 43 and 53 were associated with more signs of blood vessel damage or “mini strokes” in the brain when a person was in their early 70s.
Additionally, higher blood pressure at the age of 43 and greater increases in blood pressure between the ages of 36 and 43 were associated with smaller brain volumes, according to the study’s findings.
Researchers report that blood pressure was not associated with the amount of amyloid protein in the brain and did not appear to predict memory and thinking problems.
“This unique group of individuals, who have contributed to research their entire lives, has already shaped our understanding of the factors influencing health throughout life,” said Professor Jonathan Schott of the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology.
“The Insight 46 study has allowed us to reveal more about the complex relationship between blood pressure and brain health. The findings suggest that blood pressure even in our 30s could have a knock-on effect on brain health four decades later.”
“We now know that damage caused by high blood pressure is unlikely to be driven through the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein amyloid, but through changes in blood vessels and the brain’s architecture,” he continued. “The findings show that blood pressure monitoring and interventions aimed at maximizing brain health later in life need to be targeted at least by early midlife.”
“High blood pressure in midlife is one of the strongest lifestyle risk factors for dementia, and one that is in our control to easily monitor and manage,” added Dr. Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
“Research is already suggesting that more aggressive treatment of high blood pressure in recent years could be improving the brain health of today’s older generations. We must continue to build on this insight by detecting and managing high blood pressure even for those in early midlife.”
The Insight 46 study will continue to monitor these people in the years to come to explore whether those with worse brain health are more prone to cognitive decline and dementia.
The study was published in The Lancet Neurology.
Source: University College London