Brain MRIs reveal young adults with above average blood pressure have lower brain volumes

Brain MRIs of young adults with above normal blood pressure revealed a higher risk of brain shrinkage than young adults with normal blood pressure, according to a study published online Jan. 23 in the journal Neurology.  

Individuals in their 20s and 30s with above normal blood pressure—over 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg)—showed loss of gray matter volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for memory, emotions, and language, among other functions. The findings could help streamline how and when above normal levels of blood pressure in young adults should be monitored and managed.  

“Previously the assumption has been that brain damage related to high blood pressure results over years of evident disease, but our study suggests that subtle changes in the brain’s gray matter can be seen in young adults who have never been diagnosed with high blood pressure,” study author Arno Villringer, MD, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, said in a prepared statement. “More research should be done to investigate whether this could increase the risk for stroke, dementia and other cerebrovascular diseases later in life.”  

For the study, a total of 432 young adults (average age 28 years) underwent MRI brain scans and at least one blood pressure reading. A total of 41 percent had normal blood pressure, 29 percent had low end above normal blood pressure from 120/80 to 129/84 mmHg, 19 percent had high end above normal blood pressure from 130/85 to 139/89 mmHg and 11 percent had high blood pressure above 140/90 mmHg.  

Villringer and colleagues discovered that individuals with blood pressure above normal were more likely to have lower gray matter volume in areas of the brain—including the frontal and parietal lobes, as well as the hippocampus, amygdala and thalamus.  

“While the study does not prove that above normal blood pressure causes these gray matter alterations, this research suggests that treating high blood pressure or maintaining lower blood pressure in early adulthood might be essential for preventing the cascade from silent brain changes with no symptoms to organ damaging conditions such as stroke and dementia,” Villringer said.  

The study was supported by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.