The First Dementia Test: Blood Pressure
I’ve got a brand-new tool in the fight against dementia. And, oddly enough, it’s one of the very first tools any medical student learns to use. It’s something you’ve probably had tested hundreds of times—never realizing that it could give you a glimpse of your future.
I’m talking about your blood pressure. Long a harbinger of myriad health risks, we’re now learning that high blood pressure is a sign of upcoming dementia as well.
That’s especially true in middle age. It appears that, many decades before you see any direct symptoms, the damage is being done.
Like checking the oil in your car
Simply put, your blood pressure is the biggest single figure for predicting your future health.
It’s not perfect—no single measure is. But blood pressure does a pretty good job of warning you about trouble ahead.
Of course, high blood pressure is associated with just about every cardiovascular disease. It can lead to stroke or kidney damage. It can presage fluid in your lungs or vision loss.
And now, we know that high blood pressure in middle age is inextricably linked to dementia later in life.
What we don’t know, yet, is whether high blood pressure is causing damage to the brain, or it’s just a correlated symptom. That’s still being studied.
But what we do know is that you want to avoid high blood pressure like the plague.
But that’s easier said than done. You’ve got two major obstacles to overcome.
Missing the problem
I’m always surprised by how often my own nurses and physician assistants get blood pressure numbers wrong.
These are people I’ve personally trained time and again. They’ve seen me take blood pressure properly thousands of times, yet still, I often get numbers that are off the mark.
And if I’m getting numbers from an outside office—forget it!
The problem is that many medical professionals no longer learn the proper way to take blood pressure.
The vast majority rely on expensive machines that are supposed to do all the work for you. The only problem is, most of the time, they do a terrible job.
The only way to get accurate results, still, is to take blood pressure manually—listening with a stethoscope. But that’s a method that’s often overlooked today.
And when inadequately trained medical professionals do try their hand at taking blood pressure manually, they often don’t have the training or practice to get it right.
For instance, the other day I had a patient come in with terrible blood pressure—he was 200 over 95. (120 over 80 is considered the baseline for normal—if the top number is over 140, you’ve got serious blood pressure problems.)
However, his initial blood pressure reading didn’t reveal the problem. Most nurses only fill the blood pressure cuff to a pressure of around 180—which simply isn’t high enough to catch patients with real issues.
I’ve found this to be a rampant problem. So there’s a very real chance that you don’t actually know your true blood pressure.
Believe it or not, I’ve found attachments and apps for smartphones to be fairly accurate—more accurate than the expensive machines at doctor’s offices, at least. If you’re concerned about your blood pressure, they are a cheap, worthwhile investment.
At the very least—even if the absolute number is a little off—you’ll be able to monitor changes and trends in your blood pressure. And that’s very effective in pinpointing when a problem emerges.
But, more than that, you want a doctor that takes your blood pressure manually. There is simply no substitute—at least not yet. I’m sure someday, the expensive electronics will become highly accurate. But we’re not there yet.
Dealing with the real issue
So, just getting an accurate blood pressure reading is the first hurdle to dealing with potential problems. There’s no way to address a problem if you don’t know it’s there.
But the second major hurdle can come from doctors themselves.
That’s because most doctors like to treat blood pressure with drugs.
The problem? Blood pressure is usually a symptom of an underlying problem, and drugs act like a band-aid.
They make the problem seem to disappear. At the very least, your blood pressure numbers will drop to a reasonable range.
That can be a very good thing. Your arteries, for instance, are directly impacted by the strain of high blood pressure.
But, if drugs are merely papering over the problem, then you can still experience plenty of consequences down the road.
That’s why, except in extraordinary cases, I treat blood pressure drugs as a last resort.
Instead, I recommend these three simple, easy solutions to high blood pressure—each of which will make your entire self healthier.
Improve your diet
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is the best thing you can do to lower blood pressure.
Avoiding saturated fats is also good. Some studies show that cutting back on salt has a direct effect. And, while most of the cholesterol in your bloodstream is produced by your liver, making sure you limit high-cholesterol intake can help as well.
Generally speaking, eating whole foods—of any kind—is the true key to controlling blood pressure. As an added bonus, this kind of diet also can help you lose weight—which is another great way to lower your blood pressure.
As with all preventative medicine, exercise is key.
It doesn’t’ have to be strenuous. Doing just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity five days a week—or 10 minutes of high-intensity activity every day—is enough to see results.
Some strength training is great too—the increased muscle mass will bump up your metabolism.
But, by far, aerobic activity will help your blood pressure the most.
For many people, high blood pressure isn’t a physical issue, so much as a mental one.
We’re surrounded by stress-inducing situations, many people don’t get enough sleep, and taking time out for yourself isn’t encouraged nearly enough these days.
Stress and lack-of-sleep are major contributors to high blood pressure. And no pill can take that away.
Instead, spend 10-20 minutes a day on yourself, just sitting quietly somewhere, breathing. Practice gratitude—by reminding yourself of the wonders and luck that fill your life, and telling others how much you appreciate them and what they do.
It may sound touchy-feely. But expressing gratitude is one of the surest ways to reduce your stress.
And, by extension, lower your blood pressure.
High blood pressure is no joke. You can survive it for years, but sooner or later, it will catch up to you.
Whether through heart attack, stroke, or even dementia, high blood pressure will always come home to roost.
It’s easy to push it aside, because you rarely feel high blood pressure—that’s why it’s aptly called the “silent kller”. You don’t see the damage it does, until it’s too late.
That’s why you want to stay on top of this sneaky killer from the get-go. Get your blood pressure taken often—by those who know how to do it properly. Eat right, exercise regularly, and mentally massage your stress away each day.
Do that, and you’ve got nothing to fear. Put it off, though, and you’re just waiting to see how high blood pressure decides to attack.
Don’t give it that chance.
- Staff, Mayo Clinic. 10 ways to control high blood pressure without medication. Mayo Clinic. Published May 30, 2015. Accessed Oct 23, 2016.
- Why Blood Pressure Matters. American Heart Association. Published Aug 4, 2014. Accessed Oct 23, 2016.
- Emling, Shelley. The Health Condition In Midlife That Can Raise Your Dementia Risk. The Huffington Post. Published Oct 11, 2016. Accessed Oct 12, 2016.