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The Surprising Thing That's Putting Your Brain Health At Risk, According To New Research 

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February 5, 2019

If you're young and healthy, it's unlikely you're thinking about your blood pressure on a regular basis. You might get it checked at the doctor's office or know a thing or two about what blood pressure means for your heart health but not much more. And you're not alone! Many people assume this isn't something they need to think about until later in life.

But a study published in the latest issue of Neurology1showing that there was less gray matter in the brains of young adults with elevated blood pressure—suggests that we need to rethink our relationship with blood pressure. As it turns out, it's something we should care about at every age.

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The blood pressure-brain health connection you need to know about.

The results of the study showed that adults aged 19 to 40, with blood pressures chronically above the recommended measurement of 120/80, had less gray matter volume in regions commonly seen in older adults with cognitive decline and changes in personality. And seeing as Alzheimer's disease is the fastest growing epidemic in America, this is a big deal.

If you're not familiar with the science of blood pressure, it's time you brushed up on exactly what those numbers mean. Our blood pressure consists of the systolic blood pressure (SBP), which is the top number, and the diastolic blood pressure (DBP), which is the number on the bottom. In simple terms, the SBP is the pressure against which the aorta has to pump. The aorta is a large vessel off the left ventricle that delivers the blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The higher the pressure, the greater the aorta and the left ventricle have to work to get the blood out to the body's organs. The DBP is the pressure in the systemic arterial circulation while the left ventricle is filling with blood in preparation for the next heart contraction. Increased pressure causes increased work all around and ultimately arterial stiffness and less efficient blood flow and hence, less delivery of oxygen and important nutrients.

Compromised blood delivery has effects on many organs. Importantly, and as demonstrated in this recent study, it may be correlated with a decrease in the gray matter of the brain. The gray matter contains the cell bodies of the brain cells, and the gray matter regions are important for cognition, emotional health, personality, sensation, and movement. This loss of gray matter may be associated with risk for stroke, headaches, dementia, and other neurodegenerative disease.

How to mind your blood pressure for better brain health.

This study demonstrates how crucial it is to set yourself up for long-term health, starting now. So how do you mind your blood pressure? As part of my healthy brain program, these are some of the recommendations I offer patients:

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1. Exercise daily.

If you want to protect your brain in the long-term, you have to get moving. Regular movement of blood through your body with exercise keeps organs—including the brain—pumped with oxygen and nutrients.

2. Increase consumption of vegetables and fruits.

Polyphenols, flavonoids, and carotenoids, oh my! Fruits and veggies are filled with all these fabulous compounds for heart, vessel, and brain support.

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3. Check your blood pressure monthly.

You can do this at your doctors office and most pharmacies. If it's mildly elevated, check it weekly and keep track of the results while you try some of these blood-pressure-reducing strategies.

4. Meditate.

Regular meditation has been consistently shown to reduce blood pressure. If you're not. sure where to start, check out mbg's Essential Guide to Meditation class with Charlie Knoles.

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5. Deep breathing exercises.

Learn the 4-7-8 method of deep breathing as well as the alternate-nostril breathing technique. These techniques are powerful to reduce anxiety and stress.

6. Avoid alcohol and smoking.

Alcohol consumption and smoking tobacco are very inflammatory to vessel walls and can directly contribute to increased blood pressure as well as impaired cerebral blood flow.

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7. Improve sleep hygiene.

Try to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Get morning light and respect your circadian rhythms. If you have sleep apnea, please get treated by your doctor because it's an independent risk factor for hypertension and stroke.

8. Increase consumption of garlic, parsley, and asparagus.

At first this might seem like a very random group of foods, but research has shown that these foods contain compounds that are powerfully anti-hypertensive.

9. Manage your weight.

Being overweight may increase your risk of metabolic syndromes, hypertension, vascular disease, and coronary artery disease, so it's important to try to maintain a healthy weight at all ages.

10. Hydrate.

Healthy blood flow requires good hydration practices, so make sure you're drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

11.  Take magnesium.

This important mineral stabilizes the endothelium, or the lining of the blood vessel walls and contributes to a healthy vascular system. Try taking magnesium glycinate and indulge in an Epsom salt bath or two.

12.  Use caffeine.

Yes, you read that correctly, I'm telling you to drink coffee! Studies have shown caffeine to help clear vessels of plaques and debris, an important contributing factor to elevated blood pressure.

13.  Don't forget to have fun!

There's nothing like a little happiness to bring that pressure down. Do what you enjoy, and do it regularly!

Your blood pressure is important no matter what your age, and if you make these changes now, they could change the course of your health for the rest of your life. These changes will help to reduce risk for not only hypertension, stroke, and cognitive decline but can help improve the health of all organs and your overall wellness for years to come. Here's to a healthy brain!

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.