Young adults with good blood pressure will go on to live mentally healthy lives, having better memory and thinking skills, compared to those with high blood pressure, according to a new study. While previous studies have linked poor heart health in middle aged adults to mental decline, this new study suggests that the association starts much sooner, linking blood pressure and blood sugar early in life with mental acuity decades later.
Lead author Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, told Reuters Health in an email, “We know these risk factors are important later in life but what is new is that they seem to be important for cognitive health even going from young to mid adulthood. This is the first time anyone has shown this.”
For the study, researchers followed 3,000 young adults, ages 18-30, for 25 years, examining blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels every two to five years. After 25 years, participants were given three tests meant to assess memory and learning, brain aging and decision processing speed. People’s weight, height, smoking and alcohol drinking, age, sex, race and education were all accounted for in the analysis.
Results found that higher blood pressure readings early in life, as well as higher blood glucose levels, were associated with poorer performance on all three mental function tests. In addition, people who qualified as diabetic didn’t perform as well on the tests either. According to results published in Circulation, higher cholesterol accounted for lower scores on the learning and memory test, but there was no difference in their performance on the brain aging test or the processing speed test.
Yaffe said that many young adults have “high normal” markers of heart health, blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels, close to the recommended upper limit. “The differences (in cognition) are probably too small to be clinically significant, but the question is whether this is the beginning of something later,” she said.
Dr. Jennifer G. Robinson, who was not involved in the new research, studies cardiovascular disease and aging at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, agreed that the difference in mental functioning was subtle. “People weren’t cognitively impaired,” but a few decades later they might be, she told Reuters Health.
“I find it fascinating because we know that midlife risk factors predict late life cognitive decline, but this is the first study to push it back even further,” to young adulthood, she said. “We’re finding subtle changes early that have cumulatively negative effects.”
“We have to be serious about promoting healthy habits throughout the lifespan,” Robinson said.