UTHSC Study Links High Blood Pressure to Mental Decline

Feb 5, 2019

Leaders of the Memphis sites for the national SPRINT MIND clinical trial are, from left, Karen C. Johnson, MD, MPH; William Cushman, MD; Barry Wall, MD; Catherine Womack, MD; Linda Nichols, PhD; and Jennifer Martindale-Adams, EdD.
Credit Connor Bran

The heart is key to keeping the mind sharp as we age, a new national study published last week says.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the Memphis Veteran Affairs Medical Center and other national collaborators found lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment in older adults.

Mild cognitive impairment happens when aging adults have a harder time thinking clearly and remembering things compared to peers of a similar age.

The impairment condition is a known precursor for dementia, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Dementia is a more severe form of mental decline that inhibits adults from doing routine tasks.

“Personally, I would recommend to my patients that they get their systolic blood pressure less than 120,” said Dr. Karen Johnson, one of the study’s lead researchers at UTHSC. “It prevents cardiovascular disease, I think it prevents death and...cognitive impairment.”

Study results showed reducing systolic blood pressure—the top number in a reading—to 120 is the appropriate level to minimize chances of mild cognitive impairment.

The clinical trial looked at adults over age 50, who also had hypertension and were at risk of cardiovascular disease.

Johnson said there is a link between blood pressure and dementia, but that this study did not conclusively establish the same connection between the two as was found with mild cognitive impairment.

She said researchers will continue to follow study participants looking for more cases of dementia.

Johnson hopes study results will encourage those who value a healthy mind to also maintain a healthy heart.

“You don’t want your brain to turn to mush so you’ve got to control your blood pressure,” she said.

The Alzheimer's Association is funding the study’s continuation.