What High Blood Pressure Does to Your Brain


Jennifer Larson

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When you hear or see the words “high blood pressure,” your first association might be with your heart. After all, high blood pressure, or hypertension, is classified as a cardiovascular disease. But your heart and blood vessels aren’t the only parts of your body that could be damaged by high blood pressure. Your brain, with its constant need for oxygen and nutrients, is also extremely vulnerable.

High blood pressure increases your risk of stroke.

One of the scariest consequences of having high blood pressure is it increases your chances of having a stroke. High blood pressure can weaken or damage your blood vessels, which can cause them to leak or even burst inside your brain. Weakened blood vessels may also be more likely to experience blockages that can prevent oxygen-rich blood from flowing to the brain. Those conditions can lead to a stroke.

A stroke can and often does affect your body, causing weakness or paralysis, as well as other problems, such as loss of bladder and bowel control and problems with swallowing. But a stroke can also influence:

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  • Your speech and language abilities. It’s not uncommon for people recovering from a stroke to have trouble putting words together to make coherent sentences.

  • Your memory. You may have memory lapses and trouble thinking straight for a while after having a stroke.

  • Your mental health. After a stroke, you may feel very scared and anxious. You may experience other changes in your mood, concentration, and even your judgment.

The higher your blood pressure, the higher your stroke risk, too.

High blood pressure is linked with depression and anxiety.

Anxiety and depression can raise your risk of developing high blood pressure. They can lead you to indulge in coping behaviors that can lead to high blood pressure, like overeating and gaining weight, smoking, and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. And depression can make it harder for you to control your blood pressure.

But having high blood pressure can also frustrate and worry you, especially if you have trouble controlling it. That can exacerbate the anxiety and depressive feelings you may already be experiencing. However, support groups and counseling may help.

High blood pressure increases your risk of developing dementia.

Research shows a link between cognitive decline and high blood pressure. Your blood vessels deliver oxygen-rich blood to your brain, nourishing and sustaining it. Damage to any of those blood vessels—like the damage caused by high blood pressure—can interfere with or reduce the healthy flow of blood. When your brain cells are deprived of oxygen and nutrients, you will start to show signs of cognitive impairment.

A growing number of studies suggest high blood pressure seems to accelerate the development of a type of scar tissue in the brain. Over time, the scars build up and cause dementia, which is the term for a decline in mental abilities that’s severe enough to interfere with your ability to perform the everyday activities of life.

Hypertension does increase your risk of mild cognitive impairment, but more importantly, it can increase your risk of developing more serious conditions, such as vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, later in life.

  • Vascular dementia: Vascular dementia, or vascular cognitive impairment, which often occurs after a stroke, is the second most common type of dementia. It can start out with relatively mild problems with thinking skills that tend to worsen as time goes by. Or symptoms like confusion, disorientation, and trouble with speech and language can show up suddenly after a stroke. Research suggests the damage caused to blood vessels by high blood pressure can accelerate this type of cognitive impairment.

  • Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, causing between 60 and 80% of cases. It’s characterized by plaques and tangles building up in the brain. You may not be able to change any risk you have for Alzheimer’s based on a family history of the disease, but you can work on controlling your blood pressure so it doesn’t further damage the vulnerable network of blood vessels sustaining your brain.

Keeping your blood pressure down now may help decrease your risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia, as well as reducing your chances of having a stroke. Talk to your doctor about the best path forward for you, based on your history and other risk factors. You may need to embrace certain lifestyle changes, such as eating a low-sodium diet and getting regular exercise, but you may also be a candidate for medication, too.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 18, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Blood pressure and your brain. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/blood-pressure-and-your-brain
  2. High blood pressure dangers: Hypertension's effects on your body. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/high-blood-pressure/art-2...
  3. Iadecola C. Hypertension and Dementia. Hypertension. 2014; 64: 3-5. http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/64/1/3.full
  4. Rubio-Guerra AF, et al. Depression increases the risk for uncontrolled hypertension. Experimental & Clinical Cardiology. 2013;18(1):10-12.   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3716493/
  5. Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association. http://www.alz.org/dementia/vascular-dementia-symptoms.asp
  6. What is Dementia? Alzheimer’s Association. http://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp

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