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High Blood Pressure Speeds Up Aging, What To Do

High blood pressure

If you're in your 30s or 40s and have high blood pressure, you may think you don't have to worry until you're older. However, a new study from the University of California Davis (USC) reports that high blood pressure among this age group speeds up aging of the brain, even when blood pressure levels are not considered high enough to cause a physician to prescribe medication. If these findings are true, then now may be the time to lower your blood pressure.

Have you checked your blood pressure lately?

People in their 30s and 40s are in the prime of their lives, building families and careers. Yet the threat of accelerated aging of the brain may be looming among those whose blood pressure may be high or even at a level not considered to be of concern--until now.

According to Charles DeCarli, professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at UC Davis, and his investigative team, their research uncovered structural damage in the brain of people in their 30s and 40s who could be classified as having high blood pressure or being prehypertensive, the latter of which is defined as a reading of 120-139/80-89 mmHg.

This study is believed to be the first to show that people defined as young middle age can experience structural brain damage associated with high blood pressure, damage typically seen in older people who have cognitive decline.

Wake up to high blood pressure
High blood pressure is a silent disease: people who have hypertension typically don't experience any symptoms until they have an associated event, such as a heart attack or stroke. For that very reason, people are encouraged to have their blood pressure checked regularly, especially if they have other risk factors for heart disease such as obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol use, sedentary lifestyle, or insulin resistance or diabetes.

One two-fisted take-home message from this study is: don't think you're too young to have high blood pressure, and take steps while you're young to do something about it. Author DeCarli noted on this theme that "people can influence their late-life brain health by knowing and treating their blood pressure at a young age, when you wouldn't necessarily be thinking about it."

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Why is this important? Because research shows that while high blood pressure increases the risk of brain damage, cognitive decline, and cardiovascular events, these problems can be prevented if blood pressure is maintained at a healthy level.

What the study showed
Data from 579 people who are participating in the third generation of participants in the Framingham Heart Study were evaluated. Blood pressure readings were gathered on all the individuals when they entered the study in 2009, and from that they were assigned to one of three groups: normal blood pressure, prehypertensive, or high blood pressure.

When the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans taken of all the participants were analyzed, the researchers found that the brains of individuals who had high blood pressure had an average changes in the frontal lobe that were not healthy, as well as 9 percent less gray matter compared with people in the normal blood pressure group.

As an example, the brain of a 33-year-old individual in the high blood pressure group looked similar to the brain of a 40-year-old in the group with normal blood pressure.

How to lower your blood pressure now
You can take steps to lower your blood pressure now, without medication. Here are some tips:

  • If you are overweight, lose the excess pounds. Losing as little as 10 pounds can help. See your healthcare professional about how much weight you need to lose--and maintain.
  • Eat a healthy diet that is rich in natural, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds. Reduce intake of foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat (animal foods) and low in fiber.
  • Limit intake of alcohol, as too much alcohol can raise blood pressure. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than two drinks daily for men and one for women
  • Watch your salt intake. Some people are salt sensitive, which means their blood pressure increases when they consume sodium. It can be a challenge avoiding sodium, especially since it is so prevalent in processed and refined foods. That's another reason why eating whole, natural foods is helpful.
  • Reduce and manage stress, as stress can temporarily raise blood pressure. However, chronic stress can keep your blood pressure at a dangerous and elevated level
  • Cut caffeine consumption, as it can elevate blood pressure in some individuals.
  • Eliminate smoking, as nicotine can raise blood pressure by 10 mmHg or greater for up to 60 minutes after you smoke. If you keep smoking throughout the day, your blood pressure will stay high.

The bottom line again
The authors of the study emphasized that "subtle vascular brain injury develops insidiously during life, with discernible effects even in young adults," and that their findings "emphasize the need for early and optimum control of blood pressure. The bottom line is, high blood pressure can speed up aging, and the time to do something about it is now.

Maillard P et al. Effects of systolic blood pressure on white-matter integrity in young adults in the Framingham Heart Study: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Neurology 2012 Nov 2; doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(12)70241-7

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