High blood pressure, especially when it starts at a younger age, can cause many health maladies.

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Northwestern University found that young adults with high blood pressure experience significant decline in cognitive function and gait in midlife. Their findings call for earlier intervention to prevent later decline. The study was recently published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

The research was led by Prof. Jeffrey Hausdorff of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and Tel Aviv Medical Center’s Center for the Study of Movement, Cognition, and Mobility at the Neurological Institute and Prof. Farzaneh A. Sorond and Dr. Simin Mahinrad of Northwestern University’s Department of Neurology.

They studied 191 young adults with high blood pressure with an average age of 24-years-old over a 30 year period. The subjects were part of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, a community-based cohort of young individuals.

The researchers found the subjects experienced significant decline in cognitive function and gait at around the age of 56-years-old. They also found “that gait impairment may be an earlier hallmark of hypertensive brain injury than cognitive deficits.”

By evaluating gait and cognitive function using neuropsychological tests and MRIs in the last year of the study, the researchers found that cumulative levels of high blood pressure had a negative impact on function, independent of other vascular risk factors.

“We find that the deleterious effects of elevated blood pressure on brain structure and function begin in early adulthood,” Prof. Hausdorff said in a statement. “This demonstrates the need for preventive measures of high blood pressure even at this early age. We know that poor gait and cognitive function among older adults are associated with and predict multiple adverse health outcomes like cognitive decline, dementia, falls and death.”

High blood pressure or hypertension can affect arteries, kidneys, eyesight and sexual function. In older adults, it can cause cognitive decline as a result of interrupted blood flow to the brain, as well as strokes, heart attacks and impaired mobility.

“Our study shows that the time to treat high blood pressure and to minimize future changes in gait and cognition is much earlier — decades earlier — than previously thought,” Prof. Hausdorff concluded. “Our takeaway is this: Even in young adults, blood pressure has significant implications, even at levels below the ‘hypertension’ threshold, and is important to assess and modify for future cognitive function and mobility.”