Your Brain on Cholesterol

Forgetting things? Check the health of your heart

by Kathleen Krueger | Updated 03 Dec 2015 at 5:12 PM

When my husband’s maternal grandmother began experiencing memory lapses, we watched her struggle with the knowledge that her cognitive abilities were slipping away.

It is well known that Alzheimer’s risk may run in families. High cholesterol — and the heart risk it carries — certainly do as well.

So could the two be connected?

Two German studies indicate that individuals who carry ApoE4, a genetic variant linked to increased Alzheimer's risk, showed an even higher risk of memory lapse symptoms if they also suffered from coronary disease and high cholesterol.

This important finding raises the question of whether lowering cholesterol levels can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, and if so, by how much.

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Dr. David Perlmutter, a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition, points out the study does not show that lowering your cholesterol levels will lower your Alzheimer’s risk. In fact, the opposite could be true.

New research raises the question of whether lowering cholesterol levels can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, and by how much.

“There are just as many studies that show lower dietary fat and lower blood cholesterol can be associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Perlmutter told LifeZette. “Our take-home from this study should not be to jump on statin drugs. This is good science. We just need to interpret it correctly.”

Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association, describes Alzheimer’s disease as a “giant puzzle.”

“There have been several studies that show a link between cardiovascular health and brain health,” Snyder said. “Midlife obesity and cardiovascular disease can affect cognition in later life.”

Dementia is the broad term for age-related cognitive issues, such as lapses in memory. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for the largest number of dementia patients. Its cause is not yet known, but the changes that take place in the brain are different from other types of dementia. Second on the list is vascular dementia, caused by a reduction of blood flow to the brain.

Snyder said the additional research that is needed in relation to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is on its way. The federal government is beginning to increase funding in this area.

“They need to,” Snyder said.

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Dr. Diana Kerwin, chief of geriatrics at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, is confident that better cardiovascular health correlates with better brain health.

“We just don’t know the specifics yet,” she said.

“We tell people who are ApoE4 positive and are worried about experiencing memory loss due to Alzheimer’s to make sure your cholesterol is normal; make sure your blood pressure is normal; make sure you exercise; and make sure you eat a heart-healthy diet,” Kerwin said. “You can’t change your genetics, but you can change your cholesterol and blood pressure.”

Kerwin concurred with the summary statement from the study: “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”

We have come a long way in our understanding of what is and is not good for our hearts. Now maybe it’s time to focus more attention on the health of our brains.

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