High blood pressure and stiff arteries linked to cognitive problems in adolescents, study finds

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A recent study published in Physiological reports reveals that adolescents with high blood pressure and stiff arteries tend to have poorer cognitive function. Specifically, youth with high blood pressure performed worse on attention and learning tasks, while those with stiffer arteries showed poorer working memory. This finding sheds light on an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of adolescent health.

While previous studies have shown a link between arterial health and cognitive decline in adults, little was known about how these factors interact during adolescence, a crucial period for brain development. The team wanted to investigate whether physical activity or sedentary behavior could influence these associations, and whether there were differences between boys and girls.

The study used data from the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) study, a long-term research project conducted in Kuopio, Finland. The PANIC study originally invited 736 children aged 6 to 9 years to participate, with 512 children participating in the first baseline examinations. After eight years, the researchers had follow-up data on 277 adolescents. For this particular study, they focused on 116 adolescents (71 boys and 45 girls) who had complete data on arterial health, cognitive function, and physical activity.

The researchers measured arterial stiffness using a device that calculates pulse wave velocity, the speed at which blood pressure pulses travel through arteries. Higher velocities indicate stiffer arteries. They also measured the thickness of the carotid artery walls and blood pressure levels. Cognitive function was assessed using the CogState battery of tests, which evaluates various mental abilities, such as attention, memory and learning.

Physical activity and sedentary time were measured using a combined heart rate and motion sensor, which participants wore continuously for at least four days. This sensor provided detailed data on how much time each participant spent doing different levels of physical activity, from light to vigorous, as well as their overall sedentary time.

The study found several important links between arterial health and cognitive function. Adolescents with higher systolic blood pressure—the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats—tended to have poorer overall cognitive function. This finding remained consistent even after accounting for factors such as age, sex, parental education, body fat percentage and puberty status. Specifically, higher blood pressure was associated with poorer performance on tasks that measured attention and learning.

Arterial stiffness, indicated by higher pulse wave velocity, was associated with poorer working memory. Interestingly, this association varied between boys and girls. For boys, higher arterial stiffness was associated with better attention and working memory, while for girls it was linked to poorer working memory. This difference highlights the importance of considering sex-specific factors in health research.

The researchers also looked at whether physical activity or sedentary behavior affected these associations. They found that neither physical activity nor sedentary time significantly modified the relationship between arterial health and cognitive function. This suggests that the direct impact of arterial health on cognitive ability may be more important than previously thought.

Although the study used robust methods to measure arterial health and cognitive function, it did not directly measure brain structures or functions. The exact mechanisms linking arterial health to cognitive performance therefore remain speculative. The researchers hypothesize that high blood pressure and arterial stiffness may impede cerebral blood flow or damage small blood vessels in the brain, but further studies are needed to confirm this.

“Our findings underline the importance of preventing high blood pressure and arterial stiffening to promote cognitive and brain health in young people. However, we also observed some contradictory associations,” said doctoral researcher Petri Jalanko from the Faculty of Sports and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä.

“The study provides insight into how blood pressure and arterial stiffness relate to cognitive function. However, to establish a definitive causal relationship between arterial health and brain health, and to determine whether increasing physical activity or reducing sedentary time can mitigate the negative effects of poor arterial health on cognition, further randomized controlled trials with appropriate control groups and advanced brain imaging techniques are needed.”

The study, “Association between arterial health and cognition in adolescents: The PANIC study,” was authored by Petri Jalanko, Bert Bond, Jari A. Laukkanen, Soren Brage, Ulf Ekelund, Tomi Laitinen, Sara Määttä, Mika Kähönen, Eero A. Haapala, and Timo A. Lakka.

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