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Published on: July 3, 2013
by Cody Chan for The Almagest:
Could cholesterol play a role in more than just heart health? Yes, say some scientists, who think that high blood cholesterol levels may also contribute to the development of dementia in older adults. Not all studies support this claim, but one study does suggest a link between cholesterol levels and mental functioning in seniors.
University of California researchers recruited more than 1,000 postmenopausal women who had just completed a 4-year study of heart disease. Blood cholesterol levels and information on medication use – including recent use of cholesterol-lowering drugs called “statins” – were analyzed from previously collected data. In addition, each woman completed a cognitive function test designed to measure memory and concentration.
The researchers were looking for – and found – a correlation between the women’s cholesterol levels and their scores on the memory test. Women with the lowest blood cholesterol levels tended to do better on the cognitive function test than did those with the highest cholesterol levels.
When the researchers compared the scores of women who took statin drugs with those who did not, statin users had a slight edge, but the difference wasn’t large enough to draw a firm conclusion.
Scientists are fairly sure that some forms of age-related dementia result from the same type of blood vessel damage that leads to heart disease. Because cholesterol affects the health of heart blood vessels, say the scientists, it makes sense that it would have some effect on the health of blood vessels in the brain as well. In fact, it’s possible that both heart disease and dementia result from a poorly running cardiovascular system.
This study included only elderly women, most of whom were white, so the results cannot necessarily be applied to men, younger women, or women of other races. It’s also not clear from this study what role, if any, statins might play in reducing the risk of age-related memory loss.
Nevertheless, keeping blood cholesterol levels in check is clearly a smart move for everyone, given the solid link between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. And stay tuned, say the authors, as the potential link between cholesterol and brain function continues to develop.
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