St. Mark's Hospital - June 21, 2019

While your brain accounts for only 2 to 3 percent of your body weight, it needs 15 to 20 percent of the blood pumping from your heart to function well. If your heart and circulatory system don’t deliver enough blood, brain cells can become damaged or die. This would be terrible news for your whole body, because the brain is your command central.

One of the smartest ways to ensure good blood flow to your brain is to maintain healthy blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure or hypertension puts you at risk for a range of brain problems, from fuzzy thinking to dementia to strokes.

Is your blood pressure too high?

Unless you’ve checked it recently, that’s not an easy question to answer. High blood pressure rarely produces noticeable symptoms, which is why it’s often called the silent killer.

However, if your blood pressure measures 130/80 or higher, you have hypertension, according to the guidelines from the American Heart Association that were updated in 2017. If your blood pressure is just below those levels, don’t be complacent. Elevated blood pressure, also known as prehypertension, is a risk factor for developing high blood pressure.

Hypertension and your brain

High blood pressure can be easy to ignore, even as it’s gradually making your blood vessels narrower and less flexible. Uncontrolled hypertension also damages the inner lining of the arteries, contributing to blood clots and other blockages that can interfere with blood flow and cause blood vessels to rupture.

When blood vessels feeding the brain are blocked or rupture, the result is a stroke. In some cases, a clot may only temporarily block blood flow causing a mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA often produces stroke-like symptoms, such as double vision or difficulty speaking, which usually clear up quickly. Still, a TIA is a serious warning sign. About one in three people who experience a mini-stroke go on to have a full-blown stroke.

When you have high blood pressure, you’re also at risk for experiencing cognitive impairment. Effects can start small, but progress to affect reasoning, speaking, concentrating and remembering. Vascular dementia also can develop when arteries are damaged or weakened by high blood pressure or stroke.

But there’s good news: A large randomized study published this year in JAMA found that lowering blood pressure can reduce mild cognitive impairment.

Tips for reducing blood pressure

Depending on how high your blood pressure is, your doctor may prescribe medication to help you control it. You’ll also be given a “prescription” for lifestyle changes like these:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, losing just 5 or 10 pounds can help you manage hypertension.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats help reduce blood pressure.
  • Cut back on salt. Salt doesn’t just come from the saltshaker. If you often dine out or eat a lot of processed foods, you might be taking in too much sodium.
  • Exercise regularly. Get moving for Get moving for at least 2 and a half hours each week. That’s just a 30-minute brisk walk five days a week. You can do it!
  • Quit smoking. Every time you smoke it causes a brief spike in blood pressure. Plus, it adds to the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
  • Limit alcohol. Like smoking, drinking alcohol can temporarily raise blood pressure, and the more you imbibe the longer lasting the effects. If you drink, limit consumption to no more than one or two drinks a day.