Blood pressure link to brain damage

Higher than normal blood pressure before the age of 50 has been linked to more extensive brain damage in later life.

A study from the University of Oxford, published in the European Heart Journal, analysed damage to the small blood vessels in the brain, associated with “increased risk of stroke, dementia, physical disabilities, depression and a decline in thinking abilities”.

“Not all people develop these changes as they age, but they are present in more than 50 per cent of patients over the age of 65 and most people over the age of 80, even without high blood pressure, but it is more likely to develop with higher blood pressure and more likely to become severe,” said Dr Karolina Wartolowska, a clinical research fellow at the University’s Centre for Prevention of Stroke and Dementia.

“We made two important findings. First, the study showed that diastolic blood pressure (the blood pressure between heart beats) in people in their 40s and 50s is associated with more extensive brain damage years later. Many people may think of hypertension and stroke as diseases of older people, but our results suggest that if we would like to keep a healthy brain well into our 60s and 70s, we may have to make sure our blood pressure, including the diastolic blood pressure, stays within a healthy range when we are in our 40s and 50s.

“The second important finding is that any increase in blood pressure beyond the normal range is associated with a higher amount of white matter hyperintensities (WMH). This suggests that even slightly elevated blood pressure before it meets the criteria for treating hypertension has a damaging effect on brain tissue.”

WMHs show up on MRI brain scans as brighter regions, indicating damage to the small blood vessels in the brain.

“Our results suggest that to ensure the best prevention of WMHs in later life, control of diastolic blood pressure, in particular, may be required in early midlife, even for diastolic blood pressure below 90mmHg, while control of systolic blood pressure (maximum blood pressure reached each time the heart beats) may be more important in late life.

“The long time interval between the effects of blood pressure in midlife and the harms in late life emphasises how important it is to control blood pressure long term, and that research has to adapt to consider the very long-term effects of often asymptomatic problems in midlife.”

What is high blood pressure and why is it important? (

“As blood is pumped by the heart around the body, the pressure with which it pushes against the walls of blood vessels changes. When the heart is squeezing blood into the arteries, the pressure is high. When the heart is relaxed, the pressure is lower.

“Your blood pressure is a measurement taken of the highest reading and the lowest reading. It is given as 2 figures – highest (systolic) over lowest (diastolic).

Systolic: pressure in the artery as the heart contracts. This is represented by the top, higher number.

Diastolic: pressure in the artery when the heart is relaxing and being filled with blood. This is represented by the bottom, lower number.

“Your blood pressure is high if the reading is higher than 140/90 mmHg, which is considered to put you at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke (cardiovascular disease). That is, you have high blood pressure if the higher figure (systolic) is higher than 140, or the lower figure (diastolic) is higher than 90, or both. This is also known as hypertension. More than one third of Australians over the age of 18 have high blood pressure.

“Your blood pressure is important because if it is too high, it affects the blood flow to your organs. Over the years, this increases your chances of developing heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, diabetes, eye disease, erectile dysfunction and other conditions.”

The definitive cause of high blood pressure is unknown. However, risk factors include: a sedentary lifestyle (with little or no exercise); smoking; being overweight; a diet with a high salt intake; high blood cholesterol; a family history of high blood pressure; high alcohol consumption; diabetes.

How to lower blood pressure without pills

By far the most effective means of reducing elevated blood pressure is to lose weight, says Harvard Health. Even losing as little as four kilograms can lower your blood pressure.

Weed out high-sodium foods by reading labels carefully; there’s lots of it in processed foods. It is easy to reach the daily limit of 1500 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily for individuals with high blood pressure – that’s less than a teaspoon of salt.

Regular exercise helps make your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood, which lowers the pressure in your arteries.

In a week, 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as running, can help lower blood pressure and improve your heart health

Potassium is a mineral that helps your body get rid of sodium (salt). It also eases pressure on your blood vessels. Modern diets have increased most people’s sodium intake while decreasing potassium intake.

To get a better balance of potassium to sodium in your diet, focus on eating fewer processed foods and more fresh, whole foods.

Foods that are particularly high in potassium include:

  • vegetables, especially leafy greens, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes
  • fruit, including melons, bananas, avocados, oranges, and apricots
  • dairy, such as milk and yogurt
  • tuna and salmon
  • nuts and seeds
  • beans.


Do you know your blood pressure? Do you have problems with high blood pressure? Were you aware of the link to brain damage in later life?

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Written by Will Brodie

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