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Lower Blood Pressure Means Less Chance of Dementia

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 14, 2000 -- The millions of Americans who struggle to control their blood pressure have another reason to keep up the fight: It might help them stay mentally alert as they age.

A study in a recent issue of the journal Hypertension shows that older people with even moderately high blood pressure -- who were not on medication or treating it through diet, exercise, or other lifestyle changes -- scored lower on memory and other thinking skills tests than did people of the same age with normal blood pressure.

The study's main author tells WebMD he hopes the findings will convince people to keep taking their blood pressure medication.

"I think our work might act as a an encouragement to both doctors and patients," says Gary Ford, MD, a pharmacology professor at the Institute for the Health of the Elderly at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, in England. "Nearly everybody agrees that dementia is about the worse thing you can get because of the loss of dignity. Our study strongly supports the idea that treating [high blood pressure] may help reduce that."

The study involved more than 100 people who were an average of 76 years old. Half had normal blood pressure while the balance had moderately high blood pressure. They were healthy in all other ways.

All were given a series of eight tests to measure their memory and reaction time, including such things as alertness, attention, power of concentration, and ability to complete word and picture recognition tasks. The group with the higher blood pressure scored significantly lower on seven of the tests, although their reduced skills did not appear to be serious enough to affect daily activities.

"This may actually have important implications in how aggressive one should be in treating blood pressure in the elderly," says Charles Francis, MD, president of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles and chairman of the hypertension committee for the American College of Cardiology. "This gives further support to the idea that you really want to get blood pressure as controlled as possible."

"If these findings are correct, they certainly point the way for preventive treatments, which are of great interest to the entire elderly population," says Barry Reisberg, MD, director of the Alzheimer's and Aging Research Institute at New York University's School of Medicine. Reisberg was not involved in the study but reviewed it for WebMD. Currently, no preventive measures exist for dementia, such as that caused by Alzheimer's disease.

Besides medications, which can have side effects, more emphasis should be placed on combating high blood pressure through lifestyle modifications, says Larry Sparks, PhD, principal scientist at the Haldeman Laboratory for Alzheimer's Research at Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Ariz.

"If you are able to bring it down without medications, that is the way to go," Sparks tells WebMD. "Many people think if you take medication you don't have to change your lifestyle. ...Most people end up having to do both.

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