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High Blood Pressure Harms Young Adult Brains

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WebMD Health News

Oct. 4, 2004 -- High blood pressure can decrease mental function in young adults as much as it does in older people, according to a new study.

Early, aggressive efforts to prevent and treat high blood pressure regardless of a patient's age are needed, says researcher Merrill F. Elias, PhD, MPH, in a news release.

Previous research has shown that high blood pressure is related to poor thought function in adults. Brain changes from high blood pressure are well documented, write the researchers. However, past studies focused on older adults.

Elias and colleagues based their findings upon a long-term study of more than 500 people in two age groups: 18-46 and 47-83. Elias, professor of psychology and professor of epidemiology in the department of independent studies at the University of Maine in Orono, and colleagues published their study in the November issue of the journal Hypertension.

Researchers measured the participants' blood pressure at the beginning of the study and at up to four follow-up visits. They also tested participants' mental function at the same times.

High blood pressure was defined as having systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 140 mmHg or greater, and/or diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 90 mmHg or greater.

Participants' data spanned up to 20 years, providing a lengthy look at the relationship between blood pressure and thinking.

No Age Gap

Elias' team expected that the older participants would show more of a decrease in thought function due to high blood pressure. Instead, they found that "young adults are as susceptible" to the problem.

In both age groups, over time, higher blood pressure correlated with a decline in "visualization/fluid abilities," which is the ability to react and respond to new information. The finding indicates that blood pressure may start affecting the brain earlier than previously thought.

The researchers also tested for changes in verbal, memory, and speed abilities. None of those were affected.

Safeguarding the Brain

Lowering blood pressure -- even a little bit -- could help.

Decreasing systolic blood pressure by 20 points or diastolic blood pressure by 10 points would have a considerable beneficial effect on preserving mental function in the population as a whole, the researchers write.

To the extent that blood pressure effects on thought function are not reversible, it is important to prevent an increase in blood pressure levels as early as possible in life, they note.

In a Hypertension editorial, Jan Staessen of Belgium's University of Leuven, and Willem Birkenhäger of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, also call for clinical trials to see if lowering blood pressure could help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

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