Beta Blockers May Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk, Study Finds

Beta blockers, a venerable class of blood pressure drugs that has fallen from favor in recent years, may help protect the aging brain against changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia that rob memory and mental function, new research indicates.

In autopsies on the brains of 774 men after their deaths, scientists found that those who took beta blockers to help control hypertension had fewer of the brain lesions and less of the brain shrinkage seen in Alzheimer’s than men who took other types of blood pressure medications and those who left the condition untreated. Their brains also showed significantly less evidence of multiple tiny strokes, called microinfarcts.

A parallel study showed that an expanded group of men who took beta blockers also experienced less cognitive decline as they aged compared with those in the control groups.

The research, to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in March but released to the media on Monday, is preliminary; of the 774 Japanese American men who agreed to have their brains examined after death, 610 had suffered from high blood pressure and only 40 had taken beta blockers.

That is far too small a number to support a sweeping conclusion that beta blockers have benefits beyond controlling high blood pressure, experts warned.

“There’s a hint there,” said Dr. Charles DeCarli, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at UC Davis, who was not involved in the study. If borne out by further research, including a clinical trial, the findings could give physicians a powerful tool for preventing dementia and induce many more Americans to get their blood pressure under control, he said.

The study adds to mounting evidence that high blood pressure has a corrosive and probably cumulative effect on the brain, and that treating it promptly and effectively can yield dividends beyond lowering the risk of heart attack or stroke. Studies suggest the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementia is lower for people whose blood pressure is kept within healthy bounds.

The newest study suggests that the 11 classes of drugs used to lower high blood pressure do not confer equal protection against dementia. “Beta blockers are different,” said Dr. Lon White, a University of Hawaii neurologist who led the study, which has not yet been published in a medical journal.

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