High Blood Pressure Shrinks Your Brain
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Last updated May 2, 2017 (originally published July 24, 2012)

By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Registered
Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and other members of our Editorial

We all know we should avoid high blood pressure because
it increases our risks of heart disease and stroke. In the
US,  the Centers for Disease Control report that 31% of
Americans have hypertension.
High blood pressure is
responsible for over 750,000 deaths in the US annually. In
the UK, 32% of men and 29% of women have
hypertension, according to the British Heart Foundation.  

Now, there is yet another important reason we should all
avoid high blood pressure
--- it shrinks your brain.

How High Is Too High?

Hypertension has been linked with decreases in the amount
of gray matter in the brain, several studies have found.
Even mild hypertension
--- just above the recommended
levels of 110 to 120/70 ---
put you at increased risk for
brain shrinkage.  

Hypertension affects many areas of your brain. For
example, a joint study from doctors at the University of
Pittsburgh and Wayne State University discovered that, the
brains of people with hypertension showed lower
volume of gray matter, white matter, ventricular spaces and
sulcal spaces.

To put this into context, higher volumes of gray matter and
density of gray matter are associated with higher IQ and
better memory.

But gray matter is not all that matters, forgive the pun.
Below normal volumes of
white brain matter and low
structure have been linked with slower speed of thinking.
In fact white matter appears to be more affected than gray
matter as you age, according to a 2011 study led jointly by
the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in
Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin.
The fact that
high blood pressure shrinks both gray matter and white
matter means that it impacts your ability to think clearer
and fast enough.

How High Blood Pressure Affects Your Brain

Many studies have found a strong correlation between
hypertension and cognitive decline as you age.

High blood pressure affects 4 key mental functions
vocabulary, finding words, fluid reasoning and something
"perseverative thinking".

Hypertension Causes Perseverative Thinking

Have you ever heard of “perseverative” thinking? You may
not recognize it but one of the ways you function every day
is your ability to shift from one idea to the next. You don’t
get “stuck” on a topic or a word or an idea. This ability to
shift effortlessly from one topic to another is essential in
just getting through your day.  

But some people can’t do this or they can’t do it very well.
They stay stuck in an idea, word,
or pattern of thinking
long after everyone else has changed the topic.

That being stuck is perseverative thinking, and it is one
indication of cognitive decline caused by high blood
pressure, according to a 2003 study from the Department
of Gerontology at Wayne State University in Michigan.


Inflexible or perseverative thinking is also called
"rumination" in some studies
, especially with regard to
negative thoughts
.  In addition to raising your blood
pressure, this type of thinking increases your risk for heart
disease and other cardiovascular problems, according to A
2009 study led by Dr. Britta Larsen and Dr. Nicholas
Cristenfeld of the  Department of Psychology, University of

High Blood Pressure Erodes Your Working Memory

If someone tells you a phone number so that you can dial
it, can you remember it?  If so, you have normal working

Or, when someone tells you to remember to get a dozen
eggs at the grocery store as you go out the door, do you
remember it, even if you haven’t added it to your grocery
list? That’s working memory again. Think of working
memory as your memory on the fly. It’s the memory you
use for those short-term “now” tasks.  

When someone tells you something and you remember it
later even though you didn't write it down, you actually did
write it down. You wrote it down mentally in your brain on
an invisible note pad called your working memory.

On the other hand, if you have to  ask them to repeat the
number again and again as you dial it, you have faulty
working memory.  

Well, high blood pressure erodes working memory. As soon
as you write something down on your mental note pad,
high blood pressure erases it.

You find yourself asking, what was that number again?
What did you tell me to bring from the store? Or you get to
the store and you can’t remember for the life of you what
you were supposed to buy. You can't find things around
the house. And this happens all the time.

Hypertension Causes Declines in Fluid Reasoning

Fluid reasoning is the ability to solve problems,
independent of your acquired knowledge.  You can figure
your way out of things creatively. You may not know how
to do something, but you can improvise and work it out.

Remember McGyver?  His type of problem solving is a prime
example of fluid reasoning. You need green paint. You don’
t have green but you figure out that you can mix blue and
yellow and get green.

Hypertension makes it harder for you to reason fluidly like
McGyver. You can’t work your way through problems
except with great effort, and even then you may not figure
things out. This type of reasoning is critical whenever you
are confronted with a new environment –transferred to
work in a new city or a new neighborhood or a new
company anywhere --- or with new people.

High Blood Pressure Ruins Your Vocabulary

Your vocabulary can be thought of as a tool box with
words being the  tools inside. According to most studies,
native speakers of any language have a vocabulary of
between 20,000 and 35,000 words.  Even at age 5, we
have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. Adults learn an average
on one new word a day up until the time they reach middle
age. Then, you guessed it, learning new words stops.  If
you have high blood pressure, you actually start to lose
words as you age.

And not only do you lose the word, you lose the ability to
recall the word, a process known as “word finding”.  

Hypertension increases the difficulty of word finding,
according to a 2009 study from Boston University,
Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine. In this
study, 284 adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were
tested on word recall and word finding. High blood
pressure in this study as defined as 140/90 or higher. The
tests showed that those with hypertension were 2.2% less
accurate in naming than those with normal blood pressure.

What’s the big deal, you might ask –it’s only 2.2% less
accurate. Well, it is a big deal. Imagine not being able to
name 2% of the words you want to use each day.

Remedies for Declines in Brain Volume Due to High Blood

It’s always a good idea to try to normalize your blood
pressure. However, studies such as the 2014 study
from Wayne State have found that reversing high blod
pressure will not necessarily reverse the loss of brain

However, other remedies do help.

One of the best ways to increase the volume of your brain
is by eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Foods such
as salmon increase brain volume significantly, and are even
prescribed by doctors for Alzheimer's patients.

With Alzheimer's, as with several other forms of dementia,
doctors have detected shrinkages in brain volume.
Shrinkages in brain volume with Alzheimer's disease appear
to affect both the gray matter and the white matter of your
brain, according to a 2014 study from Newcastle University
in the UK (Institute for Ageing and Health).

Many studies have found a strong correlation between
diets which are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and
cognitive decline.  Other studies have proved the positive ---
that adding omega-3 to your diet improves your brain
volume and  function.

For example, a 2014 study from Oregon Health and Science
University's Department of Neurology discovered that
supplementing the diet of Alzheimer's patients with omega-
3 fatty acids and alpha linolenic acid slowed the rate of
cognitive declines even after just 12 months.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, as
mentioned, as well as sardines, halibut and tuna. Foods rich
in alpha-linolenic acid --- which your body turns into
omega-3 fatty acids --- include walnuts, flax seeds, canola
oil, perilla and soy.


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Walnuts help to increase omega-3 in your
blood , which helps to increase brain volume.
Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help to increase
brain volume.