High blood pressure, a well-known player in heart attacks and stroke, also might contribute to the memory lapses that many people experience as they get older, a study released Tuesday suggests.
Many studies have shown that, if left untreated, high blood pressure can damage parts of the brain and cause dementia. But this study, and others like it, raises the concern that hypertension could cause subtle problems with short-term memory, such as the ability to remember a phone number, perform a task and then go back and dial the phone number.
''Hypertension may take the edge off a little bit,'' says J. Richard Jennings, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who presented the report Tuesday at the American Heart Association's 57th annual hypertension meeting in Washington, D.C.
His research suggests that high blood pressure might add 10 years to normal aging of the brain:
For years, researchers have noticed that people with hypertension seem to have mild problems with attention. Other studies suggested that people with high blood pressure did worse on tests of attention and memory.
Jennings and his colleagues wanted to take a look at the actual brain during such a test so they recruited 59 people with normal blood pressure and 37 with high blood pressure. They did a positron emission tomography (PET) scan of the brain while recruits took a computer memory test.
Those with high blood pressure did slightly worse on a test of working memory, the ability to remember bits of information for a brief period and then use it in a task. The team also gave the recruits a battery of memory tests and found that those with high blood pressure performed slightly worse.
The PET scans showed that people with high blood pressure had less blood flowing to the memory regions of the brain than did healthy recruits. That reduced blood flow could diminish the ability to perform at certain memory tasks, Jennings says.
Brain cells need oxygen and sugar in blood to fuel the task at hand, such as remembering a phone number. Healthy people have blood vessels that dilate and provide more blood to brain cells working to remember a bit of information. But people with hypertension have damage to those vessels. They don't dilate as well, and there's not enough blood at hand to fuel their performance.
With less blood going to the brain, people with hypertension might find themselves performing a tad worse on tasks of short-term memory, such as going to fetch an item and briefly not remembering the task in front of them. Those lapses can get worse naturally as people grow older, but high blood pressure might make the effect worse, Jennings says.
The findings from this small study need to be confirmed, says Thomas Mosley, an expert in geriatric medicine at the University of Mississippi-Jackson.
''People who haven't had their blood pressure checked should go to a doctor,'' says Daniel Jones, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. Untreated high blood pressure kills about 118,000 Americans each year.
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Last updated: 09/26/2003 - 08:34 AM