The preliminary results of a new study to be presented at a conference in March are causing scientists to ask if beta-blockers, a class of drugs commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, can reduce dementia risk. The study found autopsies of elderly men revealed those who took beta-blockers had fewer brain changes normally associated with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

The study is due to be presented as an abstract on 21 March 2013 at the American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN’s) 65th Annual Meeting in San Diego.

Earlier studies have suggested high blood pressure in midlife is a strong risk factor for dementia.

In an AAN statement published on Monday, study author Lon White, of the Pacific Health Research and Education Institute in Honolulu, says the study results are “exciting, especially since beta-blockers are a common treatment for high blood pressure”.

“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,” says White.

The results come from postmortem autopsies of 774 elderly Japanese-American men who had been taking part in the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study.

610 of the men either had high blood pressure or were taking medication (about 350 of them) for the condition before they died.

15% of those taking medication for high blood pressure were taking only beta-blockers, 18% were using beta-blockers and one or more other drugs, while the rest were taking other medications (not beta-blockers) for blood pressure.

The study looked for brain abnormalities and brain shrinkage. There were two types of abnormality: brain lesions that indicate Alzheimer’s disease, and small lesions called microinfarcts that are usually caused by several tiny, unrecognized, strokes.

The results show that any type of treatment was linked to fewer brain abnormalities than no treatment.

But men who were taking only beta-blockers for high blood pressure before they died had fewer brain abnormalities than those who were receiving no treatment, or other blood pressure drugs.

The brains of the men who were on beta-blockers plus other drugs also showed fewer brain abnormalities, but not as few as those on beta-blockers only.

The brains of the men who were on beta-blockers, either on their own or in combination with other medications, also showed less shrinkage.

One expert who reviewed the study, points out that the findings do not prove beta-blockers actually caused the reduction in brain lesions.

The link could also be showing that people who only need one drug, beta-blockers, may have less disease in the first place, says Mary Sano of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, in a report from MedPage Today.

Funds from the National Institutes of Health helped pay for the study, which is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

News released in October 2012, of early results of a study funded by Cancer Research UK also raised the question of whether beta-blockers can stop the spread of breast cancer.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD