Research involving more than 37,000 people found elevated readings under the age of 50 could have serious consequences later in life. Higher diastolic blood pressure, measured between heartbeats, particularly appeared to increase the risk of brain damage when older, even if only slightly raised and below the usual treatment threshold. It might also increase the risk of stroke, physical disabilities and depression. Study leader Dr Karolina Wartolowska, of the University of Oxford, said: “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.”
More than one in four UK adults is thought to have high blood pressure, including millions not diagnosed. Ideal blood pressure is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg, while 140/90mmHg or above is considered high.
Researchers analysed records from the UK Biobank database, which recruited people aged 40-69 between 2006 and 2010 and followed their health for more than 10 years.
They looked for brain damage known as “white matter hyperintensities”
(WMH), which show up on MRI scans and indicate damage to the small blood vessels.
The study found that a small 10mmHg increase above normal in systolic blood pressure – measured when the heart contracts – led to an average 12.6 per cent increase in WMH.
For diastolic blood pressure, every 5mmHg rise was linked to a 10.6 per cent increase in WMH.
People who had recorded higher diastolic blood pressure in their 40s and 50s were particularly likely to suffer more extensive brain damage in later years.
White matter hyperintensities are thought to increase risk of stroke, dementia, physical disabilities, depression and a decline in thinking abilities.
Dr Richard Oakley, at Alzheimer’s Society, which partfunded the study, said: “High blood pressure doesn’t just affect our hearts, but our heads too.
“Although this study didn’t look for a specific link between blood pressure and dementia, it’s an important step forward in understanding how high blood pressure is linked to changes in the brain that can increase our risk of dementia.”
“With few dementia treatments available it’s vital we try to keep our minds healthy, as well as our bodies.
“With one million people in the UK expected to be living with dementia within the next five years, we need continued investment in research.”
The findings are published in the European Heart Journal.