Cholesterol & Alzheimer’s: Research Suggests Possible Link

Closeup of content senior man and unrecognizable woman putting hand on his shoulder. Isolated view on white background.
Closeup of content senior man and unrecognizable woman putting hand on his shoulder. Isolated view on white background.

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, affecting 1 in 14 people over the age of 65, and 1 in 6 over the age of 80 (1). Though the disease is not completely understood, it is thought to be caused by the build-up of certain proteins around the brain cells.

One of these proteins, amyloid-beta, causes plaques to build up in the brain (2). It is now thought that the presence of these plaques could be directly related to levels of cholesterol in the brain.

According to a new study, which is detailed here at Medical News Today, amyloid-beta can stick to fatty and waxy molecules known as lipids, and in particular lipid cell membranes containing cholesterol. This increases the chance of molecules of amyloid-beta sticking together, which leads to build-up in the brain.

The team of researchers came to the conclusion that the presence of cholesterol can cause clusters of amyloid-beta to develop 20 times faster than they would otherwise. In simple terms, high levels of cholesterol seem to act as a catalyst for Alzheimer’s.

Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance created by the liver, but it is also found in certain foods. What’s interesting is that consuming a lot of dietary cholesterol does not seem to be a risk factor. This is because dietary cholesterol – in other words, cholesterol you consume in certain foods – does not cross from the bloodstream into the brain.

In other words, it is not believed that by drastically altering your diet to cut out foods high in cholesterol that you can prevent the clustering of amyloid-beta molecules and the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Having said that, it is generally advised that you keep an eye on your cholesterol, particularly if you are over the age of 65, and generally pursue a healthy lifestyle. Smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are all considered risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

As a result of this study, it’s likely that researchers will continue to investigate the association between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s. Co-author of the study, Professor Michele Vendruscolo has said: “The question for us now is…how to control cholesterol’s role in Alzheimer’s disease through the regulation of its interaction with amyloid-beta.”

Whether or not this leads to a breakthrough treatment remains to be seen, but what is certain is that this study has helped to narrow the focus for Alzheimer’s researchers seeking to develop a cure.

If you’re particularly concerned about cholesterol or Alzheimer’s, read on for a guide to both.

Preventing Alzheimer’s

Enjoying good cardiovascular health has been shown to benefit your brain and help prevent the onset of dementia. Things you can do to keep your heart and vascular system healthy include:

 

  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing your alcohol intake
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Exercising regularly – it’s advised that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week plus strength exercises (3)

 

The good news is that all of these lifestyle changes are also known to have a positive impact on levels of cholesterol. In other words, if you make the kinds of changes listed above, you can protect yourself against both high cholesterol and Alzheimer’s.

Other risk factors for Alzheimer’s include:

 

  • Gender – more women than men suffer from the disease
  • Genetics – it’s believed that a family history of Alzheimer’s can increase your risk
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of mental stimulation

 

Essentially, in addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising, you should try to maintain a healthy social life, and keep yourself stimulated intellectually. Taking up a new hobby, learning a new language or instrument, and volunteering in your community are all ways of staying mentally healthy and happy, and preventing the onset of dementia.

Preventing High Cholesterol

In addition to the tips listed above, you can prevent high cholesterol by specifically avoiding foods that contain saturated fat. Some examples of foods containing saturated fat are:

 

  • Sausages
  • Meat pies
  • Butter and lard
  • Hard cheese
  • Cakes and biscuits

 

You don’t have to eliminate these foods completely, but you should enjoy them in moderation. Where possible, try to replace them with foods containing unsaturated fats, such as oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, and vegetable oil.

In some cases, medicines known as statins may be prescribed to help lower cholesterol.

Sources:

(1) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alzheimers-disease/#who-is-affected

(2) https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2013/09/scientists-reveal-how-beta-amyloid-may-cause-alzheimers.html

(3) https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/