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Blood Pressure Meds May Be Boosting Brain Power

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If you take medications for high blood pressure and need encouragement to stay on them,  here's a great incentive: some meds that lower blood pressure may actually be helping boost brain power.

Scientists have known for years that controlling high blood pressure is linked to better brain health. Numerous studies have confirmed that what's good for the heart is also good for the brain. But now new research published yesterday in BMJ Open suggests that some drugs that lower blood pressure may not only slow cognitive decline but actually improve thinking skills.

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"These drugs are not just lowering blood pressure but they seem to have other benefits," says lead author D. William Molloy, M.D., in a phone interview. Molloy is based at the Centre for Gerontology and Rehabilitation in St. Finbarrs' Hospital at the University College Cork in Ireland.

Researchers studied records of mental decline in 361 dementia patients in Ontario, Canada. Eighty-five of the patients were taking blood-pressure lowering medications called ACE inhibitors and the rest were not. The researchers found that those on the ACE inhibitors experienced a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the rates of mental decline. Surprisingly, the brain power of the patients recently prescribed the ACE inhibitors actually improved over the six-month period.

Molloy says that the study could have enormous implications if long-term use of medications slows the rates of mental decline by 30 percent year after year. This compounding effect could be "like money in a bank."

"What's really interesting is if you gave these medications to normal middle-aged people who were due to get dementia when they are 75 or 80 and they took this drug at age 50 for high blood pressure, would it actually prevent the disease or postpone it?" he asks. "What we really want to do is prevent this thing."

Aside from the current study of these medications, Molloy said it's crucial that people understand the importance of controlling high blood pressure.

"I tell my patients, the worst thing for the brain is high blood pressure,"  he says. And not just because  it causes strokes and brain aneurysms.  "If you have high blood pressure in your 50s, you are four times more likely to have dementia in your 70s."

Nearly 20 percent of adult Americans are living with high blood pressure and don't know it, according to Silent Killer, a recent article in the AARP Bulletin. And only half of the 78 million Americans diagnosed with hypertension are controlling it.

Although we know that controlling high blood pressure reduces the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, we don't yet know whether blood-pressure lowering medications could help prevent the disease. A large, multi-center, government-run study with thousands of participants is asking  that question - among others - but the results won't be ready for several years.

Until then, it's worth getting your blood pressure checked regularly, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and taking medications as prescribed. It's also worth repeating: what's good for the heart is good for the brain. Or, as Molloy says when we ask him if he agrees with that theory: "Absolutely. God, yeah."



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