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Beta blockers may reduce dementia risk
January 7th, 2013
07:17 PM ET

Beta blockers may reduce dementia risk

If you take drugs to lower your blood pressure, your medication may also lower your risk of dementia, according to a new study released Monday by the American Academy of Neurology.

According to the study, people taking beta blockers, a class of drugs used to treat a number of conditions including high blood pressure, glaucoma and migraines, were less likely to have less cognitive impairment than those that did not.  Beta blockers cause the heart to beat slower and with less force, which reduces blood pressure.  They also open up blood vessels to increase blood flow.

For the last 21 years, 774 Japanese-American men between the ages of 71 and 93 took part in the study.  Of those, 610 had hypertension or were taking medication to lower their blood pressure.  Among those treated, 15% took only beta blockers and 18% got a beta blocker plus one or more other blood pressure medications.  The remaining men didn't take any beta blocker as part of their treatment.

Autopsies performed after their deaths showed the group that took only beta blockers had significantly fewer brain abnormalities like microinfarcts, or the death of brain cells because inadequate blood flow.  They also had fewer Alzheimer's brain lesions and less brain atrophy than other study participants.

"With the number of people with Alzheimer's disease expected to grow significantly as our population ages, it is increasingly important to identify factors that could delay or prevent the disease," said study author Dr. Lon White of the Pacific Health Research and Education Institute in Honolulu, who has been studying Alzheimer's for 30 years. "These results are exciting, especially since beta blockers are a common treatment for high blood pressure."

Dementia is not caused by one thing, say White.  "In fact, it's probably five or six pathological processes that contribute to the development of dementia and cognitive impairment in late life ... Hypertension in mid-life contributes substantially to one or more of those processes, and is responsible for probably 20% of dementia that we call Alzheimer's disease in late life.  The only strategies that we're really aware of to reduce the risk of late-life dementia is to identify and effectively treat high blood pressure in middle life."

While the findings are very preliminary, the study is a valuable resource, said neuroscientist Dr. Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer's Association, who was not involved with the research.  She says the biggest takeaway is the importance of maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system.

"We know that there are connections between brain health and heart health," Snyder said.  "So if you have heart problems, you should have them diagnosed and treated because there may be benefits for later life brain health.  That's not the only reason you should have heart health diagnosed, but it's one."

Dr. Daniel Potts is a practicing neurologist and professor at the University of Alabama who treats patients with dementia.  For him, it's personal–his father died of Alzheimer's disease.  Even though more research is needed, Potts calls this a landmark study.

"The study is important for me because it seems to indicate that beta blockers may be more effective than most other blood pressure medications in preventing the brain pathologic changes that are associated with dementia in later life," Potts said.

"Of course, further study is warranted to confirm these findings and also to demonstrate clinical effects: are patients doing better on them, are they having less memory loss on them? ... This study looks at the pathology.  It will be nice to look at whether they have clinical effects, day-to-day effects on activities of daily living."


soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Pyrodude

    The first paragraph says that people taking bata blockers were "less likely to have less cognitive impairment than those who did not." This double negative seems to indicate that they were more likely to have more impairment. Is this a typo?

    January 7, 2013 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • catamaran

      @Pyrodude – It means that CNN's editors need to take beta-blockers to overcome their own impairments!

      January 7, 2013 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
    • SJ

      @catamaran: LOL, this is the best wise crack I have heard today :-)

      January 7, 2013 at 21:46 | Report abuse |
    • PPJr

      CNN editors: they don't never make no mistakes.

      January 7, 2013 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
    • Pkingsley

      Yep, so used to using negatives to make sure there is no misstatements that they didn't remember to not use them twice. Come on Ms. Young, you can do this!

      January 7, 2013 at 23:33 | Report abuse |
  2. catamaran

    In other news, today's dementia study was funded by beta-blocker manufacturers and other interested pharmaceuticals!

    January 7, 2013 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Walter

      Your cynism proves nothing but that you don't have a family member dealing with this disease. I almost, repeat almost, wish you did.

      January 7, 2013 at 21:28 | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      High blood pressure is bad for your brain. It has been quite obvious for a long time that beta blockers would be protective. This is just one more study to further verify and understand why it works and what else can be done.

      January 8, 2013 at 09:36 | Report abuse |
    • Freddie

      Especially since most beta blockers have been cheap generics since the stone age. A month supply runs about $5.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:15 | Report abuse |
  3. Pyrodude

    Sorry, make that the second paragraph.

    January 7, 2013 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Rob

    Given that Alzheimers and dementia are caused by beta-amyloid plaques, this makes complete sense. I'm just surprised nobody put two and two together. Previous research has targeted the copper to stop the formation of the plaque, but not blocking the entire plaque itself. Brilliant.

    January 7, 2013 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gator boy

      @rob...just because Alzheimer's is caused by beta-amyloid plaques doesn't mean taking beta blockers will reduce the chance of beta amyloid proteins. That's not putting two and two together. The take home point is taking beta blockers and having a well controlled blood pressure reduces the chances of having micro infarcts which reduce the chances of developing dementia. It's interesting if same result can be obtained by better controlling blood pressure with any other medications like ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers , diuretics, ARBs etc. It could be better blood pressure rather than the effect of beta blockers itself. More research needed in that direction. Just because beta blockers and beta amyloid have beta in their names doesn't mean they are associated with" beta" FYI.

      January 7, 2013 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
    • copanut

      Gator Boy – take note of this statement: "the group that took only beta blockers had significantly fewer brain abnormalities". This strongly suggest a link specifically between beta blockers and the effect. Those that had beta blockers combined with other BP meds did not have the same effect, further suggesting that controlling BP alone is not the significant factor.

      January 7, 2013 at 20:49 | Report abuse |
    • Gator boy

      @copanut. U make a good point. But it's difficult to say if good BP control has been ruled out as an cofounder in both groups. They dint say it explicitly. Either ways its an interesting study. I just wanted to correct rob for connecting two beta together! Good point and correction. I am out living my life. Later

      January 7, 2013 at 21:06 | Report abuse |
    • Tim, MD

      Nope! "Beta" is used all the time in different contexts. Beta blockers block beta-adrenergic receptors. Beta amyloid refers to a morphology of the plaque. Very different things.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:13 | Report abuse |
  5. TheMovieFan

    Get beta blockers for tea party members!

    January 7, 2013 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Genetics Major

      Why? If you don't give them beta blockers, maybe they'll forget to vote. Then we can start fixing all they problems that their generation has caused.

      January 7, 2013 at 22:39 | Report abuse |
    • petercha

      Hate much?

      January 8, 2013 at 14:26 | Report abuse |
  6. Rich

    Ick. Beta blockers are scary, for me at least. I had high blood pressure and took propranolol, a beta blocker. It did great on the blood pressure, but gave me nightmares and hallucinations that made life hellish until I switched to a non-beta blocker medicine, verapamil, which worked great.

    Quit smoking, blood pressure normalized – no medication needed. Much better solution, for me at least.

    January 7, 2013 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • choo

      Nightmares are like free horror movies or haunted houses. I would pay just to have more nightmares.

      January 7, 2013 at 23:03 | Report abuse |
    • choo

      Also, you could have switched to a less lipophilic beta-blocker. Propranolol crosses the blood brain barrier fairly easily – and thus is useful for things like PTSD or migraines. There are better beta-blockers for hypertension, but ACE inhibitors are the first line treatment.

      January 7, 2013 at 23:05 | Report abuse |
  7. Spock500

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    January 7, 2013 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • choo

      Did you notice the word "may"? Regardless, hypertension can CAUSE microinfarcts. Beta blockers lower blood pressure – so it is highly likely that they may decrease the incidence of microinfarcts in some patients. This is evidence that will warrant further research.

      January 7, 2013 at 23:01 | Report abuse |
    • Spock500

      Choo, have you ever practiced evidence -based medicine? Have you ever practiced medicine? Well, I 'll repeat this again. Causation does NOT imply causality, which is what this article should have scientifically stated. "May" is just not good enough.

      January 8, 2013 at 01:30 | Report abuse |
    • Spock500

      Correlation does not imply causality, that is.

      January 8, 2013 at 01:31 | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      I believe the phrase you are looking for is "Correlation does not prove causation." It certainly implies it, which is the problem.

      January 9, 2013 at 09:42 | Report abuse |
  8. fred266

    I don't believe it!. I take Beta Blockers and as I'm dumb as a "box of rocks"...

    January 7, 2013 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nwg6011

      Try a double dose...

      January 8, 2013 at 07:08 | Report abuse |
  9. empresstrudy

    Well there's a huge price jump for another prescription drug.

    January 7, 2013 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Freddie Bar

    Get Beta Blockers for ALL of Our Politicians and their $1 Trillion a Year Deficit!!

    January 7, 2013 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nwg6011

      That would just cost the taxpayers another trillion.

      January 8, 2013 at 07:10 | Report abuse |
  11. Daniel

    I guess this study is to combat the study by the Brits and Swedes where they found that Beta Blockers were shown to bring on an early onset of type II diabetes.

    January 7, 2013 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. lgbarn

    I'll take playing chess over taking beta blockers. It's well known that chess does a great job of keeping the mind functioning at a high level.

    January 7, 2013 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I wonder

      Chess is great for keeping the mind nimble, but I can't imagine that all that stress helps lower blood pressure.

      January 7, 2013 at 23:27 | Report abuse |
  13. The_Mick

    Would the same effect be expected with ACE Inhibitors? They also open the blood vessels more and slow the heart rate down but blocking the some of the enzyme (E) that converts (C) angiotensin I (A) to angiotensin II – a chemical that causes some constriction in blood vessels.

    January 7, 2013 at 22:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Homer10

    Another clue!

    January 7, 2013 at 22:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. ronjayaz

    Beta blockers, a generic term, comprises about 12 different Rx drugs. Anything to increase sales.

    January 8, 2013 at 03:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jk

      too bad they are all generic now...

      January 8, 2013 at 11:32 | Report abuse |
  16. Steve

    I think this article, although well intentioned, is poorly written.
    Dementia has a number of causes. The article implies that beta blockers (used to reduce blood pressure) will prevent the formation of amyloid plaques, which is strongly associated with Alzheimer's. the article does not articulate the link between these plaques. Also, according to NIH, there is no proven link between hypertension and Alzheimer's.
    I believe the article is indicating that dementia (loss of brain function) from other causes can be reduced by keeping blood pressure low over time. This is understandable, since hypertention, micro infarcs, and TIA are stronly correlated.
    Some clarification by the authors would be welcome.

    January 8, 2013 at 03:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Steve

    ....meant to say: the article is not clear about the relationship of hypertension and the amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimers.
    ....and: hypertention and TIA's are strongly correlated with dementia.

    January 8, 2013 at 03:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Laerrus

    Weed gets rid of dementia, and it's better...

    January 8, 2013 at 03:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. merecat

    There are much safer herbal/natural remedies for increasing Blood flow/plaque.. I would suggest Googling them rather than blindly taking beta blockers.. They have side effects of their own that are at times more dangerous than Dementia..

    January 8, 2013 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jk

      the only ones are diet and exercise, all the other natural remedies, especially the herbal stuff, are a farce. Let me guess, you have absolutely zero formal training in science or medicine. Let me venture further and guess that you also believe that vaccinations lead to autism.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:31 | Report abuse |
  20. jk

    Couldn't this also be interpreted as that people with lower blood pressure tend have less dementia. I don't think there is enough here to say that this class of medicines is combating dementia...

    January 8, 2013 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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  23. petercha

    Stereotype much?

    January 8, 2013 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply

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