Protect Your Brain by Controlling High Blood Pressure

Related topics: Brain Health, Memory Fitness, Memory Care

May is National High Blood Pressure Education Month

Nurse taking senior man's blood pressure

Why do older adults experience memory and thinking problems? Not so long ago, these symptoms were largely lumped together under the heading of "Alzheimer's disease." But today's research, including increasingly sophisticated brain imaging techniques, shows that the picture is more complicated.

Recent research released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) confirms that the symptoms of dementia most likely stem from a combination of different brain ailments — including Alzheimer's disease, but also including Lewy bodies, hippocampal sclerosis, microinfarcts (small strokes) and low brain weight. And the more of these conditions a person has, the more likely they are to suffer memory and thinking problems. The VA research team, headed by Dr. Lon White, noted of his study, "It was combinations of ailments — rather than any single condition — that correlated most strongly with cognitive impairment. Such combinations had a dramatic impact on dementia risk."

Dr. White says more research is needed on how to protect against these various brain conditions — but one thing experts know for sure is that high blood pressure raises the risk of all of them. Said Dr. White, "At this point, prevention by effective treatment of hypertension in midlife seems to be the only solid approach."

Protecting against dementia isn't the only incentive to keep our blood pressure under control. High blood pressure (hypertension) raises the risk of stroke and heart attack, contributing to more than 1,000 deaths in America each day. Yet although one-third of American adults have high blood pressure—and the percentage is much higher in older adults — many are totally unaware of it. Hypertension is often called "the silent killer," because these patients don't discover that anything is amiss until damage is done.

For May's National High Blood Pressure Education Month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides answers to common questions people have about controlling their blood pressure:

Q: What is high blood pressure?

A: Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries. This pressure naturally rises and falls during the day, but when it is consistently too high, it is considered high blood pressure. Like the pipes in your house, your arteries can fail if they are under too much pressure.

Q: When my healthcare provider takes my blood pressure, what do the numbers mean?

A: Blood pressure has two numbers, systolic and diastolic, and is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Systolic pressure (the top number) is the force on the blood vessel walls when the heart beats and pumps blood out of the heart. Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is the force that occurs when the heart relaxes in between beats.

Q: What numbers are considered healthy?

A: If your blood pressure is less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic, then your blood pressure is normal; between 120 and 139 systolic and 80 – 89 diastolic, you have prehypertension. Systolic of 140 or greater, or diastolic that is 90 or greater, is hypertension.

Q: If my blood pressure is too high, what can I do?

A: Your doctor can help you get your blood pressure under control by prescribing certain medications, helping you make healthy lifestyle changes, and helping you monitor your blood pressure regularly.

Q: What lifestyle changes can lower blood pressure?

A: The big two are to quit smoking and to reduce sodium in your diet. The CDC also recommends that people manage their stress, maintain a healthy weight, and eat a healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, and low in not only sodium but also in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol. Limit alcohol to two drinks per day for men and one for women.

Q: Where can I learn more?

A: The CDC offers a collection of resources ( to help consumers learn more about hypertension and to help them keep their blood pressure at a healthy level.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2016 IlluminAge, with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).