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High Blood Pressure Can Go to Your Head

Study finds link to decline in thinking ability

MONDAY, March 24, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- A Scottish study adds one more reason to prevent high blood pressure: It can damage your brain as well as your arteries.

Psychologists at the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh sought out elderly people who as 11-year-olds had their thinking power measured in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1932. In 1999, when they were 78 years old, 83 of the survivors were given new tests of cognitive function and also underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get images of their brains.

Those images showed white matter, bright patches showing areas of brain tissue loss. Tests of nonverbal reasoning, memory and learning, processing speed and executive function were then administered. The more white matter, the lower the scores, says a report in the March issue of Psychology and Aging, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

And high blood pressure is known to increase the formation of white matter, says Ian Deary, the University of Edinburgh psychologist who led the study.

"This is one report that adds to the number of studies telling us that high blood pressure increases the loss of brain cells," says Mitchell I. Clionsky, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association.

It's normal for white matter to appear as the brain ages, Clionsky says, which is why older people are slower to solve problems and are not as attentive. But in the worst case, a severe loss of brain cells that causes the appearance of white matter can cause a dementia resembling Alzheimer's disease, Clionsky says.

None of the participants in the study were that unlucky, but the tests showed deficits. "We find it to be overall function, but others report associations with more specific mental functions," Deary says.

Dr. Robert A. Felberg, director of the stroke clinic at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, says the study shows "the changes in cognition that occur in a person's lifetime are not inevitable, because of risk factors that can be modifiable."

Those risk factors closely parallel the ones for heart disease, but there are differences, Felberg says. "We're dealing with blood vessel disease, of the heart or of the brain," he says. "Cholesterol makes a big difference to the blood vessels of the heart, but the vessels of the brain are extremely sensitive to blood pressure."

The important question, Felberg says, is "if you identify people at the age of 30 and start treatment, can you prevent those cognitive changes."

More information

Advice on keeping blood pressure under control can be found at the American Heart Association or the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

SOURCES: Ian Deary, Ph.D., professor, psychology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland; Mitchell I. Clionsky, Ph.D., director, Neuro-Psychology Associates, Springfield, Mass.; Robert A. Felberg, M.D., director, stroke clinic, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans; March 2003 Psychology and Aging
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