Cholesterol found to increase risk of damage to brainHigher cholesterol levels are not only bad for the heart and blood vessels, they increase the risk of cognitive impairment, the precursor to Alzheimer's disease, according to a study of elderly women by UCSF researchers.
The study also found that women who used cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins scored higher on tests of basic cognitive skills, such as memory, attention, and language.
Lead author Kristine Yaffe, UCSF assistant professor of psychology, neurology and epidemiology, and chief of geriatric psychiatry at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said: "The higher cholesterol these women had, the worse they did on cognitive testing. And using statins, which reduce cholesterol, seemed to be beneficial to their performance on these tests."
Declining scores on cognitive tests are a symptom of early stage Alzheimer's disease, she added.
"These results fit with other studies showing that statins may help to prevent Alzheimer's disease," Yaffe said. Although statins have not been proven to help the brain in a clinical trial, she explained, studies that have looked back at patients who took statins suggest they can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. The current study is published in the latest issue of Archives of Neurology.
To look at cholesterol's effects on the brain, Yaffe and her colleagues analysed data retrospectively on 1037 women who had participated in the HERS clinical trial of hormone replacement therapy, because the trial had collected data on both cholesterol levels over time and tests of cognitive function. The women completed tasks that measured their abilities in memory, attention, language, orientation, and visual-spatial skills.
Women with the highest LDL-cholesterol levels, and those with the highest total cholesterol levels, had significantly poorer test scores, even after statistically correcting for differences such as age, education, and their use of hormone replacement therapy. Also, women whose cholesterol levels decreased over the four years of the study were less likely to suffer from cognitive impairment, defined as scoring especially low on the tests.
Cholesterol in general, and LDL cholesterol in particular, are well known for their negative effects on the heart and blood vessels - high levels lead to narrowing of the arteries and increased risk of heart disease. HDL cholesterol is known as "good" cholesterol because high levels seem to protect against heart attack.
In addition to clogging arteries, and possibly leading to vascular changes in the brain, cholesterol may promote the clumping of a protein called beta-amyloid, which is believed to damage the brain in Alzheimer's disease patients.
Yaffe did not wish to encourage taking statins to prevent Alzheimer's. "Until we see the results of a randomised clinical trial, people shouldn't be taking statins for that purpose. However, if someone has high LDL or total cholesterol, they may be prescribed statins anyway to prevent heart disease," she said.
Adopting a low cholesterol diet is the other proven and highly recommended way for people to reduce cholesterol to healthier levels, she added.