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Controlling Blood Pressure is One Key to Heart Health for Older Adults

Elderly woman getting her blood pressure measured.
Increased blood pressure in older adults is directly related to decreased cognitive functioning, particularly among seniors with already high blood pressure, research reveals.

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High blood pressure can lead to more than just heart problems. Among other things, it is directly related to decreased cognitive functioning, according to research. That’s why is important to carefully monitor a senior with high blood pressure.

Q. My 75-year-old widowed mother just had a physical and her doctor said her heart is in great shape. She does have borderline high blood pressure, though, so the doctor has prescribed a medication. Are there other things she could do?

It sounds as if your mother has taken good care of herself if her heart is in such a healthy condition. One important component of good heart health is blood pressure, and the risk of high blood pressure does seem to increase with age, according to the American Heart Association. In fact, 90 percent of Americans over the age of 50 have a lifetime risk of high blood pressure.

High blood pressure can lead to other problems, too. Increased blood pressure in older adults is directly related to decreased cognitive functioning, particularly among seniors with already high blood pressure, research reveals. This means that stressful situations may make it more difficult for some seniors to think clearly.

Dr. Jason Allaire, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State, who co-authored a study on high blood pressure and cognitive function, explains that study subjects whose average systolic blood pressure was 130 or higher saw a significant decrease in cognitive function when their blood pressure spiked. However, Allaire notes, study subjects whose average blood pressure was low or normal saw no change in their cognitive functioning — even when their blood pressure shot up.

So how do you navigate around high blood pressure and its consequences? Your mom’s doctor will be her best source of information for lifestyle and diet changes.

“High blood pressure remains an epidemic in the United States, but it can be prevented,” said Lawrence Appel, M.D., lead author of an American Heart Association scientific statement, published in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association. “By improving their diet, people can reduce their blood pressure and put a major dent in their risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and heart failure,” said Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

The statement also recommends combining an overall healthy diet with weight loss, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol consumption, lowering salt intake and increasing potassium intake.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Health Information Center recommends following its Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) plan. The DASH eating plan is rich in fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds and nuts. Talk to your doctor about whether the DASH plan will work for you. The plan also recommends being moderately active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

If your mother lives alone, you might want to consider a companion for her. Encourage her to develop a relationship with someone who shares some of her same health interests and concerns. Or contact the local Home Instead® office. The organization employs CAREGiversSM who can help seniors with meal preparation, errands and shopping, and serve as companions.
Here’s hoping your mother has many more years of healthy heart living.

Last revised: December 28, 2011

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