We know that habits like exercise and eating a nutritious diet are good for our bodies. But when it comes to brain health, it’s hard to measure whether healthy habits are really preventing memory problems. But now, a new study shows that there may be something you can do for your brain to keep it sharp: Keep your blood pressure under control.
The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is called the SPRINT-MIND study, and it is an extension of an earlier study that found targeting a systolic blood pressure of 120 mmHg lowered the risk of heart attacks and other cardiac events when compared to a target of 140 mmHg. For this study, researchers continued to follow up with over 9,300 participants over the next four and a half years to monitor their brain health.
The study found that targeting a systolic blood pressure—the stop number on a reading—of 120 could lessen a person’s risk of experiencing memory problems. Patients with lower blood pressure had a 19 percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. There was a 15 percent reduced risk in being diagnosed with either mild cognitive impairment or ‘probable’ dementia—those who have symptoms of dementia, but have not been 100 percent confirmed with a PET scan or autopsy.
Those numbers are in comparison to people with high blood pressure. Recent studies have shown that even just slightly higher blood pressure in middle age significantly increases the risk of dementia in later decades. Overall, heavily monitoring blood pressure cut lifetime risk of dementia by one percent—a small number, but still a significant one for the overall population. Study authors also only followed up for an average of four and half years, which might not have been long enough for participants to develop dementia.
“This study shows more conclusively than ever before that there are things you can do—especially regarding cardiovascular disease risk factors—to reduce your risk of MCI and dementia,” said Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association Chief Science Officer. “To reduce new cases of MCI and dementia globally we must do everything we can—as professionals and individuals—to reduce blood pressure to the levels indicated in this study, which we know is beneficial to cardiovascular risk.”
It could be that the decrease in mild cognitive impairment risk may be due to a decrease in ‘mini-strokes‘ and other cardiovascular events that increase the risk of dementia, rather than actually reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia itself.
It’s important to note that these results are from a single study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, and participants all had higher blood pressure and a higher cardiovascular risk. Still, the results are promising enough that scientists will continue to pursue research in this area. Plus, it’s potentially something people can do right now to immediately lower their risk of MCI.
“The future of reducing MCI and dementia could be in treating the whole person with a combination of drugs and modifiable risk factor interventions—as we do now in heart disease,” Carrillo suggested. “These new blood pressure findings raise our level of anticipation for the U.S. POINTER study, which includes managing cardiovascular disease risk factors as part of the multi-component lifestyle intervention.”
This study was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago.