The Effects of Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) on the Brain 

Understand the risks, causes, symptoms and how to control hypertension, or high blood pressure.

Hypertension, also called High Blood Pressure, is not only a circulatory disease, but a multi-system disease with enormous consequences. It can affect many organs when left untreated. Blood pressure is the force generated by the heart that transports blood to the arteries. The pressure in the arteries propels the blood (rich with nutrients and oxygen) to the rest of the body. When pressure inside the arteries increases, it can damage the inner lining of the arteries. Fats are collected in the damaged arteries, making them stiff and less elastic and limiting blood flow to many organs. One of the organs at greatest risk is the brain.  

Constant pressure in the arteries over time can also cause a section of the artery wall to enlarge and form a bulge, called an Aneurysm. Aneurysm formation is most common in the body’s largest artery, called the aorta. A rupture of an aneurysm can lead to internal bleeding, which is life-threatening. 

What are the ways high blood pressure may affect the brain? 

The brain, like any organ, is dependent on a nourishing blood supply to function properly. Various ways high blood pressure can affect the brain include: 

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) 

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) is a transient, brief disruption of blood supply to the brain. This can happen if a blood clot forms and then travels within the body or dissolves. The symptoms of TIA and stroke are the same and are exhibited with symptoms such as difficulty speaking normally, weakness or numbness in the hand, tongue, cheek, face, arm or leg, and difficulty seeing clearly through one or both eyes.   

TIA does not cause permanent damage to the brain, like a stroke. TIA is also called a ministroke and is often a warning sign for a potential full-blown stroke. 

Stroke

There are two main types of strokes: Ischemic Stroke and Hemorrhagic Stroke. Ischemic Stroke, which accounts for the majority of strokes, occurs when a part of the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen and nutrients, due to blockage from a clot in the artery that supplies blood to the brain. 

Hemorrhagic Stroke, which is less common, occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, spilling blood into the brain or the fluid that surrounds it. 

High Blood Pressure is the leading cause of strokes. The higher the blood pressure, the higher the risk. Studies have shown that reducing systolic blood pressure by 10 mm Hg can reduce the risk of stroke by 44%. 

Mild Cognitive Impairment 

Cognitive impairment, which is a consequence of aging, is characterized by changes in cognitive understanding and memory. A variety of illnesses and medications can contribute to cognitive decline. Studies suggest that high blood pressure can lead to mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is not severe. Memory loss can be managed. 

Dementia 

Dementia is characterized by severe disturbances in memory, reasoning and judgment. The two main causes of dementia in most people are Vascular Dementia (Multi-Infarct Dementia) and Alzheimer’s Disease. Hypertension causes narrowed or blocked arteries, limiting blood flow to the brain and causing vascular dementia. Vascular dementia can also be caused by a stroke interrupting the blood flow. 

High blood pressure is also a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Disease occurs when there is an accumulation of small, sticky protein, called beta-amyloid, that interferes with the function of nerve cells and eventually kills the cells. In advanced cases, there are changes in the shapes of proteins, called tau proteins, and disruption in the neurons’ internal support and transport system. The area of the brain responsible for memory is affected most. 

How do you get your blood pressure under control, not just for your heart, but for your brain, kidneys, and other organs? 

Know your numbers 

Monitor your blood pressure regularly and keep a log to track patterns. This can help you modify your lifestyle factors to improve your blood pressure. 

Blood Pressure Category  Systolic Blood Pressure  (upper number)   Diastolic Blood Pressure  (lower number)   
Normal  Less than 120  AND Less than 80   
Elevated  120-129  ANDLess than 80   
Stage 1 Hypertension  130-139   OR80-89   
Stage 2 Hypertension  More than or equal to 140   ORMore than or equal to 90   
Hypertensive Crisis  Higher than 180   AND/ORHigher than 120  

Eat a healthy diet and reduce salt 

DASH diet is an evidence-based diet that derives its name from the “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” study. It is a beneficial diet plan to lower high blood pressure. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains.  

In addition, choose low-fat dairy products and skinless poultry and fish. Limit consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. 

Sodium, the main ingredient in salt, causes high blood pressure. It shows up as salt, and as baking soda in prepared, processed and packages foods when it is used as a preservative. Be sure to read all food labels, and select foods with minimal or no preservatives. If you have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting salt intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams (mgs) every day. 

Over-the-counter decongestants (Oxymetazoline, Phenylephrine and Pseudoephedrine) also contain sodium. 

Maintain a healthy weight 

Losing weight has been proven to lower blood pressure, in addition to many other health benefits. Maintain a healthy weight by eating well and moving your body frequently. 

Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation 

If you drink alcohol, it is recommended you limit consumption to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and no more than 1 drink per day for women. Alcohol in excess of these amounts can raise your blood pressure. 

Quit smoking 

There is a temporary increase in blood pressure every time you smoke. Smoking and high blood pressure are contributors to plaque buildup in arteries, increasing your risk for a heart attack and stroke. 

Manage stress 

While a direct link between high blood pressure and stress is unclear and still being studied, poor diet and alcohol consumption, along with stress, can indirectly increase blood pressure. 

Know your stress triggers and aim to avoid them. Relax, spend time with loved ones, give yourself down time, use positive self-talk, feel gratitude, and focus on living with joy to reduce your stress. 

Take your medications regularly as prescribed by your doctor 

Partner with your doctor. Be sure to adhere to all prescriptions and directions from your doctor. Keep all scheduled doctor appointments. 

The Bottom Line 

High blood pressure is a silent condition that can cause body damage years before symptoms develop. It can lead to a deadly heart attack, stroke, disability and a poor quality of life. Be smart by improving your lifestyle and preventing complications starting today. 

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