Senior Health: Relationship Between High Blood Pressure and Alzheimer’s

Jan 31st, 2011 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

High blood pressure (hypertension) is bad for us senior citizens for several reasons… it interferes with our general feeling of well-being, the incidence of strokes is much higher than for those seniors with normal blood pressure, it compromises the entire cardiovascular system, and now we are learning that hypertension is bad for your brain as well.

Johns Hopkins Medical Alert recently revealed hypertension is an important risk factor for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. And you or someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, hypertension may hasten cognitive decline.  This important health alert tells us how hypertension disrupts normal functioning of the brain.

  • First, hypertension is the most important risk factor for strokes which can lead to dementia by destroying brain tissue. This is called vascular dementia and after Alzheimer’s, it is the second most common kind of dementia.  Chronic hypertension can cause strokes, and sometimes it results in several small strokes.  These little strokes create brain damage that begins to accumulate and vascular dementia results.  And we all know senior friends who had a stroke (just one) that caused a lot of brain damage that resulted in dementia.
  • Hypertension also creates memory issues, primarily from a stroke.  High blood pressure causes damage to arteries and veins that carry blood to our brain; this damage generates plaque buildup, inflammatory cells, cholesterol and other items in our blood vessels.  If a plaque erupts, it can travel through arteries and end up at a spot where the size of the plaque is larger than the diameter of the blood vessel.  The blood cannot get past this point and a blood clot begins forming.  Sometimes the clot cuts off the blood supply to the brain; if it does this in the area that contains the memory function, the cells die and dementia results.  The Hopkins report tells us, “About one third of people who suffer a stroke develop serious cognitive problems that interfere with their ability to perform daily activities.”
  • High blood pressure also effects the part of the brain that lies below the surface, called ‘white matter’.  White matter is simply nerve fibers that transmit messages between brain cells and a surrounding ‘myelin sheath’ that acts as insulation.  People who have high blood pressure also have white matter issues; this is likely because hypertension impairs blood flow and keeps nerve fibers from getting oxygen and nutrients they need to survive.  The myelin sheath then starts to decay and MRIs will show that decay as bright white spots.  These white spots account for some dementia in seniors, especiallky if the white matter has changed a lot.  
  • When brain cells don’t get nutrients and oxygen, they can no longer do their job.  If blood flow to the memory part of the brain (hippocampus) is impaired, cells shrink and die off.  This will obviously effect brain function.
  • Finally, high blood pressure can cause issues with the blood-brain barrier, the ‘helmut’ that surrounds the brain.  When this happens, toxic material enters the brain and begins to accumulate.  One of the toxic items is beta-amyloid, that sticky protein that is associated with Alzheimer’s) and when that happens, Alzheimer’s disease has begun.

If  you or someone you love, has high blood pressure, be sure you/they get to their Primary Care Physician and begin treatment for it.  Treatment is very effective today; there is no reason anyone has to suffer from hypertension.  This kind of damage to the brain can be avoided.



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