Can lowering your cholesterol really minimise your dementia risk?

Having too much cholesterol in our blood is usually associated with problems of the heart, but studies have also suggested it can be linked to dementia later on in life.

Researchers have looked at several links, and there is some evidence that suggests high cholesterol in the blood during middle age can see people going on to develop dementia as they get older.

However, people with high cholesterol can commonly have other symptoms which contribute towards a risk of dementia, including high blood pressure and diabetes, so it isn't easy to draw clear dividing lines between these factors. There is still some investigation to be done over the role cholesterol plays in the brain in contributing towards dementia, and more research is required over the benefits of statins in reducing this risk.

Cholesterol in the brain

Researchers are examining what cholesterol in the brain does, as the way the brain processes cholesterol or changes as a result of it, is very important for our health. One such example is that a gene linked to late-onset Alzheimer's disease, known as APOE4, helps to process and use fats and cholesterol. Using this type of information can help us understand what changes in the brain occur to bring on dementia, and also help us with treatments.

It is also possible that changes to cholesterol in the blood may not be linked to the way cholesterol is processed in the brain, so that relationship requires more research.

Statins

The impact statins have on dementia is unclear. Previously, there has been a worry that using statins over a short period can have a detrimental effect on the memory and also lead to some confusion, but newer research has not replicated this link.

Statins are used by many people to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, with several studies examining whether this changes the risk of dementia.

One meta-analysis on the topic covered a group of more than 23,000 participants, who had been using statins for between three and 25 years. Using this data, researchers found that a substantial reduction to the risk of dementia, around 29%, was linked to the use of statins.

Improving your cholesterol profile

There are several reasons then for lowering our cholesterol. While cholesterol that is very high will probably need additional medication to lower, anybody with high cholesterol will be asked to make a few healthy lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Eating 'heart-healthy' foods: cut back on saturated and trans-fats, choose leaner cuts of meat and low-fat dairy products, while getting good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fibre
  • Taking regular exercise: exercising most days can help you begin to lose weight, and raise your "good" cholesterol (HDL). Try to aim towards 30 minutes of moderate activity every day, but speak to your doctor first if necessary
  • Giving up smoking: there are all kinds of benefits to quitting smoking, and one is that it can help raise your HDL cholesterol level
  • Losing weight: carrying a few more pounds than you should can lead to high cholesterol, with substantial reductions possible from losing 5-10% of our body weight
  • Only drinking alcohol in moderation: drinking too much alcohol can lead to serious health problems , including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. If your cholesterol is high, your chances of these conditions are already raised, so drinking to healthy limits is the best way to minimise these risks.


If your doctor advises you to use medication, try not to see at as an alternative to lifestyle changes. While lifestyle changes aren't enough for everybody to lower their cholesterol, they can at the very least help to keep medication dosages as low as possible.