People with Hypertension Are at a Higher Risk of Developing Dementia

High blood pressure is a common diagnosis, yet it is a dangerous one. It can lead to scar tissue developing in the heart and may even, in the most extreme cases, lead to heart failure. But now researchers think there is yet another health hazard that comes with elevated blood pressure.

People with hypertension are at a higher risk of developing dementia, according to a study published on Tuesday by the journal Cardiovascular Research, published by Oxford University Press.

Researchers also found that they can use a 3D-modeling technique called tractography to visually represent neural tracts, which can detect early signs of brain damage in people with elevated blood pressure before any symptoms of dementia are noticeable.

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A doctor measures a patient’s blood pressure. People with hypertension can show early signs of brain damage. Researchers hope they can detect these before symptoms of dementia are noticeable. Getty Images

This could have major implications for health care providers, who typically start the treatment of dementia only after symptoms have shown up. Unfortunately, by this time it may be too late to reverse the damage. By detecting early changes in the brain, doctors could more quickly identify patients at risk of developing dementia, and address this life-threatening disease with more urgency.

"The problem is that neurological alterations related to hypertension are usually diagnosed only when the cognitive deficit becomes evident, or when traditional magnetic resonance shows clear signs of brain damage," said Giuseppe Lembo, the coordinator of this study, in a statement.

This research comes in the wake of new guidelines being released last November for high blood pressure by the nation's leading heart experts.

Since the new guidelines came out, the number of people with high blood pressure spiked from 72 million to 103 million. About half of all Americans now meet the criteria for the condition, according to the American Heart Association.

A reading of 130/80 mm (millimeters of mercury) or more indicates high blood pressure. Previous guidelines defined high blood pressure as 140/90. The first number correlates to the pressure on the blood vessels when the heart contracts and the second number describes the pressure as the heart relaxes between beats.

A person is diagnosed with high blood pressure when the force of the blood against the walls of the blood vessels is elevated. This causes the heart to work harder, resulting in many health problems, like a higher risk of heart attack or stroke. Dementia can now be added to that list.

When conducting their research, doctors looked for a specific signature of brain changes in white matter, especially damage that could be tied to a decline in cognitive function.

Their results showed that patients with hypertension had significant changes. They also scored far worse on tests that looked at memory and learning.

"We have been able to see that, in the hypertensive subjects, there was a deterioration of white matter fibers connecting brain areas typically involved in attention, emotions and memory," Lorenzo Carnevale, computer engineer and author of the study, said in the statement.

"Of course, further studies will be necessary, but we think that the use of tractography will lead to the early identification of people at risk of dementia, allowing timely therapeutic interventions," he added.