A new study has found a link between high blood pressure and impaired cognitive function, including memory loss, thinking skills and dementia.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified areas of the brain associated with blood pressure, which when damaged by hypertension, may be responsible for the adverse effects on cognitive performance.
The findings, published in the European Heart Journal, could lead to early identification and treatment of people most at risk from a decline in brain function and dementia.
High blood pressure occurs in one in three people worldwide and can lead to cerebrovascular diseases and dementia. Previous studies have shown that elevated blood pressure can affect brain function, but until now, it was unclear which parts of the brain were affected and how.
To investigate brain structures associated with blood pressure, the researchers analysed information gathered from a combination of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of brains, genetic analyses and observational data from over 300 000 patients from the UK Biobank, the International Consortium for Blood Pressure, and the COGENT consortium.
Using an analytical method known as Mendelian randomisation, which looks at genetic variation to investigate the relationship between risk factors and health outcomes, the researchers found higher blood pressure was negatively associated with cognitive function.
The researchers found a decrease in brain volume and the amount of surface area on the cerebral cortex, the latter of which affects language, memory, reasoning and personality associated with higher blood pressure. Changes were also observed in the connections between different parts of the brain and in brain activity measures. Overall, higher blood pressures were associated with changes to nine parts of the brain, leading to worsening cognitive function. The results showed a significant association between systolic BP, diastolic BP, and pulse pressure and cognitive function.
Professor Tomasz Guzik, from the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Studying the genes and proteins in these brain structures could help us understand how high blood pressure affects the brain and causes cognitive problems, and potentially predict who will develop memory loss and dementia faster in the context of high blood pressure.’
The researchers hope that the findings help the development of new ways to treat cognitive impairment in people with high blood pressure, including precision medicine which can target more intensive therapies and prevent the development of cognitive impairment in high-risk patients.