Plug the brain drain

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Can high blood pressure cause small minds?

If you agree that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then stick to a healthy diet, keep a low-stress outlook and get plenty of exercise. And because this prescription may help keep your blood pressure on an even keel, it may actually prevent an insidious drain on your brain.

Researchers looked at the brains of 18 men (ages 51 to 80) with high blood pressure and 17 normal men of similar age, using magnetic resonance imaging--a technique that can show detailed pictures of brain matter without exposing the person to radiation. The men--all with hypertension lasting over 10 years--had significant deadening of brain tissue on the left side and major increases in fluid on both sides of their brains, an indication of actual loss of brain tissue. The healthy men had none of these abnormalities (Hypertension, Sep-tember 1992).

"This damage, in time, may express itself in problems with memory, language and finding your way around," says Declan Murphy, M.D., senior fellow at the National Institute on Aging, in Bethesda, Maryland. "If you can prevent high blood pressure from occurring with diet and exercise--and then maintain that state--you may be able to prevent these brain abnormalities from occurring."

It's still a mystery why the brain shrinkage occurs, but Dr. Murphy speculates that high blood pressure may hinder small vessels within the brain that provide both blood and nutrients to the organ. "As hypertension continues, these areas are less able to function, and you end up losing brain matter," he says.

Some decline in brain function may be an unavoidable part of getting older. Having high blood pressure, though, may speed that decline. "In this case, prevention of hypertension may be the cure," says Dr. Murphy.

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By Greg Gutfeld

With Linda Rao and Maureen Sangiorgio

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