Dementia: Research finds risk factor for women – it has ‘knock-on effect on brain health’

Dr Hilary warns about missed dementia diagnoses in July

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Today at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AACI), in San Diego, researchers warned that high blood pressure (hypertension) during pregnancy could increase the risk of vascular dementia. Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Women are at a higher risk of dementia than men, even when women’s longer lives are taken into account. “This series of findings highlights how important it is that pregnant women are offered regular monitoring and treatment of high blood pressure during their pregnancy.”

Dr Sancho elaborated: “High blood pressure is a risk factor for poor heart health, which has a knock-on effect on our brain health.

“This new research highlights the impact that high blood pressure and related disorders during pregnancy can have on women’s risk of developing dementia later in life.”

Included in the US research was data from 59,668 women, who had experienced pregnancy, and their risk of dementia.

Those who had been diagnosed with a high blood pressure related condition, such as pre-eclampsia, had a higher risk of vascular dementia – even when other factors were considered.

Additional factors included age at childbirth and socioeconomic status.

Dr Sancho commented: “This study highlights links between high blood pressure and preeclampsia related to pregnancy and women’s risk of dementia, however it did not look at the reasons behind this.

“Unpicking and understanding why these conditions are linked will allow better risk reduction information in the future.”

In a second study presented at the conference, researchers from the Netherlands looked for markers of brain changes related to blood and heart health in 538 women, 15 years after pregnancy.

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Women who experienced high blood pressure during pregnancy had more structural and blood vessel changes to their brains in the 15-year follow-up brain scan.

Dr Sancho said: “Changes in the brain that cause dementia can begin up to 20 years before symptoms show.

“Risk factors that affect our heart and blood vessels can also influence how our brains work and increase our risk of dementia.

“Our blood vessels supply our brain cells with the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive, and when this supply is affected, we see damage in brain scans.”

The brain scans revealed that women who had high blood pressure during pregnancy experienced changes to “white matter” in the brain, which is vulnerable to blood flow changes.

“While more research will need to happen with a larger group of women to unpick this relationship,” added Dr Sancho, “it is important to remember dementia risk is complex.”

Several factors can play a key role in the development of dementia, including: older age, genetics, and lifestyle choices.

“If you are worried about your blood pressure or risk of heart conditions it is best to contact your doctor who can give advice,” advised Dr Sancho.

Pre-eclampsia, which is high blood pressure during pregnancy, is also associated with a higher stroke risk.

Research has shown that the condition is linked to brain inflammation, blood vessel damage, and higher levels of the protein amyloid in the brain.

An excess of amyloid protein in the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.

As interest in this field is growing, more research is likely to bring illuminating results.

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