Researchers are still trying to figure out how Alzheimer’s and other dementias strike men and women differently, and how vascular brain health contributes to dementia risk. A new sex-specific study has shed light on both those questions, finding that women who developed high blood pressure in their 40s were 73 percent more likely to develop dementia later in life than those who did not have high blood pressure. Researchers said the results were the same when they adjusted for other risk factors that might lead to dementia, like smoking, obesity and diabetes, and held true across all races. The same, however, was not true for men—even though high blood pressure was more common among males.
The study, published in the journal American Academy of Neurology, looked at over 7,200 people who were given blood pressure checks once at 33, and again at 44 in the 1960s and 70s. Then, starting in 1996, researchers followed participants to see who developed dementia.
The interesting finding was that women who had high blood pressure in their 30s were not at an elevated risk of dementia like the women who had high blood pressure in their 40s.
The good news? Hypertension is something that can be controlled and monitored. Dr. Francesca Fang-Liao, Ph.D., who studies vascular dementia and has hypertension herself, told us in an interview that there is a lot of research that eating a healthy diet with good fats like omega-3 and -6 and staying active can keep your metabolic health in check.
Study author Rachel A. Whitmer, PhD, of Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif. says that women can control their vascular-related risk for dementia by monitoring themselves early in life. “Let’s pretend that I’m in this study and I had hypertension in my 30s, but I got treated and in my 40s, I don’t have it,” Whitmer said to The Sacramento Bee. “I am not at higher risk anymore of dementia. If I had it in my 30s and I still had it in my 40s, I am at high risk.”
We know that stroke can significantly increase risk of dementia, but this study helps us understand when that risk starts to kick in. “High blood pressure in midlife is a known risk factor for dementia, but these results may help us better understand when this association starts, how changes in blood pressure affect the risk of dementia and what the differences are between men and women,” said Whitmer.
Read the study here.