Research: Hypertension speeds up brain aging, shrinkage
Medication doesn't reverse change
July 7, 1997
Web posted at: 6:39 p.m. EDT (2239 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Like one out of every four Americans, Melvin Goss takes medication to control high blood pressure.
"I've had high blood pressure for a long time," he says. "I've been on medication I don't know how many years."
Goss is a cardiac rehabilitation patient who has his blood pressure checked twice a week in addition to taking medication.
But while the checkups and the medications control his high blood pressure -- or hypertension, as it is sometimes called -- it may not be enough to ward off some of its harmful side-effects.
It is well established that high blood pressure can increase the risk of stroke and heart problems and decrease life expectancy.
It also is well known that with aging the brain shrinks and begins to lose cognitive powers.
Now, researchers at the National Institute on Aging have discovered that hypertension speeds up the aging -- and the shrinkage -- of the brain.
'High blood pressure is making their brains smaller'
According to Gene Alexander of the institute, "People who had high blood pressure for many years -- and even those who were treated -- had more shrinkage in certain parts of the brain, and this was different than what we saw in our healthy group."
The research found that people with high blood pressure "didn't do as well on tests of memory and language ability compared to our healthy elderly people," Alexander said.
What surprised researchers was that those who take medication to control hypertension also had accelerated aging and shrinking of their brains.
"High blood pressure really is making their brains smaller and affecting their ability to function," says Alexander.
Alexander hopes additional studies will reveal if the problem of faster shrinkage triggers other brain problems such as premature old-age dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
But first, researchers have to discover what actually makes the brains of people with high blood pressure age and shrink faster than they should and what -- if anything -- can be done about it.
Correspondent Al Hinman contributed to this report.
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