BACKGROUND: Hypertension and cognitive impairment are prevalent in older people. It is known that hypertension is a direct risk factor for vascular dementia and recent studies have suggested hypertension also impacts upon prevalence of Alzheimer's disease. The question is therefore whether treatment of hypertension lowers the rate of cognitive decline. OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of blood pressure lowering treatments for the prevention of dementia and cognitive decline in patients with hypertension but no history of cerebrovascular disease. SEARCH STRATEGY: The trials were identified through a search of CDCIG's Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO and CINAHL on 27 April 2005. SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trials in which pharmacological or non-pharmacological interventions to lower blood pressure were given for at least six months. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two independent reviewers assessed trial quality and extracted data. The following outcomes were assessed: incidence of dementia, cognitive change from baseline, blood pressure level, incidence and severity of side effects and quality of life. MAIN RESULTS: Three trials including 12,091 hypertensive subjects were identified. Average age was 72.8 years. Participants were recruited from industrialised countries. Mean blood pressure at entry across the studies was 170/84 mmHg. All trials instituted a stepped care approach to hypertension treatment, starting with a calcium-channel blocker, a diuretic or an angiotensin receptor blocker. The combined result of the three trials reporting incidence of dementia indicated no significant difference between treatment and placebo (Odds Ratio (OR) = 0.89, 95% CI 0.69, 1.16). Blood pressure reduction resulted in a 11% relative risk reduction of dementia in patients with no prior cerebrovascular disease but this effect was not statistically significant (p = 0.38) and there was considerable heterogeneity between the trials. The combined results from the two trials reporting change in Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) did not indicate a benefit from treatment (Weighted Mean Difference (WMD) = 0.10, 95% CI -0.03, 0.23). Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels were reduced significantly in the two trials assessing this outcome (WMD = -7.53, 95% CI -8.28, -6.77 for systolic blood pressure, WMD = -3.87, 95% CI -4.25, -3.50 for diastolic blood pressure).Two trials reported adverse effects requiring discontinuation of treatment and the combined results indicated a significant benefit from placebo (OR = 1.18, 95% CI 1.06, 1.30). When analysed separately, however, more patients on placebo in SCOPE were likely to discontinue treatment due to side effects; the converse was true in SHEP 1991. Quality of life data could not be analysed in the three studies. There was difficulty with the control group in this review as many of the control subjects received antihypertensive treatment because their blood pressures exceeded pre-set values. In most cases the study became a comparison between the study drug against a usual antihypertensive regimen. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There was no convincing evidence from the trials identified that blood pressure lowering prevents the development of dementia or cognitive impairment in hypertensive patients with no apparent prior cerebrovascular disease. There were significant problems identified with analysing the data, however, due to the number of patients lost to follow-up and the number of placebo patients given active treatment. This introduced bias. More robust results may be obtained by analysing one year data to reduce differential drop-out or by conducting a meta-analysis using individual patient data.