Midlife hypertension is associated with later development of cognitive impairment, vascular dementia (VsD), and possibly Alzheimer's disease (AD). Neuropathic cerebrovascular lesions and brain atrophy have been associated with elevated blood pressure (BP), however, to our knowledge there have been no prospective investigations of an association of blood pressure levels measured in midlife with the microscopic lesions of AD. We investigated the relationship of BP level in midlife to development of neurofibrillary tangles (NFT), neuritic plaques (NP), and low brain weight at autopsy among Japanese-American men who were members of the Honolulu Heart Program/Honolulu-Asia aging Study (HHP/HAAS) cohort. The HHP/HAAS is a population-based, longitudinal study of cognitive function and dementia with 36 years of follow-up. Neocortical and hippocampal NFT and NP were counted per mm(2), and fixed brain weight was measured for 243 decedents. Elevated systolic BP, (> or =160 mm Hg) in midlife was associated with low brain weight and greater numbers of NP in both neocortex and hippocampus. Diastolic BP elevation, (> or =95 mm Hg) was associated with greater numbers of NFT in hippocampus. Results indicate that in addition to the accepted association of high BP with neuropathic cerebrovascular lesions, there is a direct relationship with brain atrophy, NP and NFT.