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How to quickly measure the health of your brain

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Monitoring your blood pressure and keeping it in a healthy range could help you avoid dementia.
Written by Rosemary Black
Updated on May 13, 2022

If you’re looking for ways to protect your brain, start with your heart. This is according to new research from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

The study looked at the brain scans of adults at age 30 and then again when they were around 55. Those with high blood pressure in the first test were more likely to show signs of dementia in the second.

The data was presented at the annual conference of the American Stroke Association. It hasn’t yet undergone peer review, but it supports the team’s earlier work.

The researchers published a similar study in the journal Circulation in 2020. They found that high blood pressure in younger adults was linked with worse memory and decision-making skills later in life. One possible reason: high blood pressure strains the brain’s blood vessels. This can damage parts of the brain needed for learning, thinking and remembering.

This link between blood pressure and dementia is a serious problem. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure or are on medication for the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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And if you’re wondering what you can do to protect your arteries and brain, we have you covered there, too. But first, it helps to understand the problem.

How high blood pressure affects your brain

As blood pressure goes up, the neurons (or nerves) in the brain don’t get the blood they need, says Bruce Mayerson, MD. He specializes in neurology at Catholic Health Physician Partners in Long Island, New York.

What’s more, high blood pressure can lead to small, undetectable strokes. “These strokes can start as young as your 20s, and you might not be aware you’re having them,” says Mohamed Teleb, MD. He’s a specialist in endovascular surgery and neurocritical care at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

“You could have these strokes for 20 or 30 years and not know it,” Dr. Teleb adds. (Here’s what to do if you suspect you’ve had a mini stroke.)

These strokes and the elevated blood pressure that leads to them can cause long-term brain damage, says Dr. Teleb. The second-leading cause of dementia (after Alzheimer’s disease) is vascular dementia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Vascular dementia is a decline in thinking skills that occurs when a condition, such as a stroke, reduces blood flow to the brain.

Fortunately, you can help prevent this. It starts by recognizing whether you’re at risk.

Recommended reading: What you should know about race and hypertension.

How to know if your blood pressure is high

You should already be getting your blood pressure checked at least once a year at your annual physical. That’s a great place to start. But if you’re at risk of high blood pressure, 1 reading per year might not give you the whole picture.

Your blood pressure can change from hour to hour throughout the day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some people even experience white-coat syndrome. This is when your blood pressure goes up when you’re with a health care provider.

To test your blood pressure more often and from the quiet of your own home, you can use a blood pressure cuff. One option: the SmartHeart Blood Pressure Monitor.

Home blood pressure monitors are slightly less precise than the ones in doctor’s offices. But they’re accurate enough to give you useful readings, according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends monitors with arm-style cuffs. To get an accurate reading, follow these steps:

  • Avoid cigarettes, caffeinated beverages or exercise for 30 minutes before you measure.
  • Rest for at least 5 minutes before you measure.
  • Sit with your back straight and supported, your legs uncrossed, your feet flat on the floor and your arm on a flat surface, such as a table or the arm of a chair.
  • Keep your upper arm at heart level.
  • Make sure the cuff fits properly. It should be snug enough to stay in place, but not so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
  • Place the bottom of the cuff directly above the bend of your elbow.
  • Don’t take measurements over clothes.
  • If you’re comparing changes over time, measure at the same time each day.

After testing, you’ll get results with 2 numbers:

  • Systolic blood pressure (the first number) measures how much pressure your blood exerts against your artery walls when your heart beats. This number should be under 120, says Dr. Teleb.
  • Diastolic blood pressure (the second) measures how much pressure your blood exerts against your artery walls when your heart is resting between beats. You want this number to be under 80.

Check your blood pressure once a week, Dr. Teleb advises. If the numbers are 120 to 129 over less than 80, your blood pressure is considered elevated. If your systolic number is higher than 129, or your diastolic number is higher than 80, your blood pressure is high. That means your heart and brain could be at risk.

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How to lower your blood pressure

If your blood pressure is high, you should talk to your doctor. There are several medications that can treat high blood pressure.

Don’t forget about lifestyle changes, too. “There is so much that you can do to lower your blood pressure besides taking medication,” says Dr. Teleb. Here’s where to start:

  • Stretch your stress away. A study from researchers in Canada found that people who stretched for 30 minutes 5 days a week had significantly lower blood pressure after 8 weeks than those who didn’t. Stretching even outperformed walking as a strategy for reducing blood pressure. (Here are 7 simple stretches to get you started.)
  • Sleep 7 to 9 hours every night. That’s how much sleep adults need, according to the National Sleep Foundation. (Naps can strengthen your brain, too.)
  • Reduce your salt intake. If your blood pressure is high, aim to cap your sodium intake at 1,500 milligrams per day, according to the AHA.
  • Stop smoking. Cigarettes contribute to cognitive issues, says Dr. Teleb. (Here’s how to kick your cigarette habit.)

For more brain-health inspiration, check out these 16 little ways to lower your blood pressure. (Some of them are easier than you might think.)

And before you leave, download the free Optum Perks mobile app. It will help you find prescription discounts and let you compare medication prices at local pharmacies.

Additional sources
Blood pressure at age 30 predicts cognitive decline later: American Heart Association
Blood pressure and decision-making: Circulation (2020). “Cumulative blood pressure exposure during young adulthood and mobility and cognitive function in midlife
47% of U.S. adults have high blood pressure: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Blood pressure fluctuations: The Cleveland Clinic
White-coat hypertension: The Mayo Clinic
At-home blood pressure cuffs: American Heart Association
Accuracy of home blood pressure cuffs: The Journal of Clinical Hypertension (2020). “The first study comparing a wearable watch-type blood pressure monitor with a conventional ambulatory blood pressure monitor on in-office and out-of-office settings
Stretching for blood pressure: Journal of Physical Activity and Health (2021). “Stretching is superior to brisk walking for reducing blood pressure in people with high–normal blood pressure or stage I hypertension
Sleep recommendations for adults: National Sleep Foundation
High blood pressure and salt intake: American Heart Association