Study: High Blood Pressure Linked to Brain Lesions, Alzheimer’s Markers

A new study found that people with high blood pressure had an increased risk of brain lesions and tangles, which can lead to brain and Alzheimer’s disease.

NEW RESEARCH SUGGESTS there may be a link between high blood pressure in older adults and brain lesions as well as markers associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published Wednesday in Neurology followed 1,288 older adults until their deaths at an average age of 89 years old. The researchers, from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, found that the risk of brain lesions, or abnormal brain tissue that can be a sign of brain disease, was higher in people with increased average systolic blood pressure over the years of the study.

Healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The larger number, which represents the pressure in blood vessels when the heart beats, is systolic blood pressure while the smaller is diastolic.

The average systolic blood pressure for the adults in the study was 134 mmHg and the average diastolic was 71 mmHg. Two-thirds of participants had a history of high blood pressure and 87 percent of participants were taking medications for high blood pressure, researchers explained in a press release. Almost half, 48 percent, of people had one or more brain infarcts – areas of dead tissue caused by blood supply blockage.

Researchers determined that the higher the blood pressure, the higher the chance of brain lesions. For example, people with a systolic reading of 147 instead of the group average of 134 had a 46 percent increase in their risk of having one or more large brain lesions – the equivalent of nine years of brain aging. They also had a 36 percent increase in the risk of having very small lesions.

Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis, lead author of the study and director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s Memory Clinic at the university, said in the press release that people with a declining systolic pressure also had an increased risk of one or more lesions, indicating declining blood pressure is also associated with brain disease.

A higher average diastolic blood pressure increased a person’s risk for brain infarct lesions as well. People with diastolic pressure of 79 mmHg – above the group average of 71 mmHg, had a 28 percent greater risk of one or more brain lesions.

When looking at the brain for evidence of Alzheimer’s disease during an autopsy after a participant’s death, researchers also discovered a link between average systolic blood pressure in the years before a person’s death and a higher number of tangles in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Although scientists and doctors are not completely sure what causes Alzheimer’s, tangles and plaques are linked to the degree of dementia and are involved in the diagnosis of the disease.

Arvanitakis said the link was more difficult to prove and requires additional research.