We all have cholesterol in our blood streams. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to digest food or produce hormones. But, as most of us know, too much cholesterol, particularly the “bad” kind, can tax our bodies and cause heart disease or heart attack. And there’s strong evidence that keeping tabs on our cholesterol levels may help ward off vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s as well.
September, National Cholesterol Education Month, is the perfect time to address our cholesterol levels and do what we can to make important health changes. Here are the basics as well as some key facts about high cholesterol and it’s possible link to developing brain plaques over time.
What You Need to Know About Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance, made by the liver and found in some foods, that circulates in the bloodstream and is vital to the healthy functioning of our bodies. However, too much cholesterol in the blood can be dangerous to the heart and vascular health.
There are two kinds of cholesterol: one is good, one is not.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is also called “good” cholesterol, and it actually helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries, as well as helping protect against heart attack and stroke. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, is the main source of high cholesterol levels.
You could have high blood cholesterol and not know it.
Because there aren’t really any symptoms from high cholesterol in and of itself, many people don’t even know their cholesterol is too high.
If You Don’t Know Your Levels, Get Tested
All it takes is a simple blood test once every five years for adults over 20, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program. Those at higher risk—including men over 45 and women over 50—may need to get tested more often.
The Link to Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Many of the factors that increase the risk of vascular dementia are the same as those that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (for example, smoking). This is because the cardiovascular system (made up of the heart and blood vessels) is responsible for delivering blood to the brain.
One of the main factors that can increase a person’s risk for developing vascular dementia includes high cholesterol. There are considerably more factors that can contribute to this likelihood, of course, such as high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and sleep apnea but cholesterol is at the top of the list.
With regard to the direct link between high cholesterol and Alzheimer’s, an important study in Neurology using insights gained from examining two much rarer disorders, Down’s Syndrome and Niemann Pick-C disease, revealed that cholesterol wreaks havoc on the orderly process of cell division.
“We found that high cholesterol levels were significantly related to brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” study author Dr. Kensuke Sasaki, researcher at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, said in a written statement.
During the study, researchers tested cholesterol levels for nearly 2,600 people between the ages of 40 and 79 who had no signs of Alzheimer’s. The researchers checked in on participants 10 to 15 years later and performed autopsies on 147 people who died, and found 34 percent of those people had been diagnosed with dementia. The autopsies also showed the hallmark plaques and tangles, representative of protein buildup in the brain.
The key findings? 86% of people with high cholesterol had these brain plaques. Only 62% of people with low cholesterol had them.
What Can You Do About High Cholesterol?
First of all, get checked out at your doctor’s office. If your cholesterol levels are normal, that’s great news. If not, it’s time to make some immediate changes. Unfortunately, medications that reduce cholesterol levels are not a quick fix for preventing Alzheimer’s and they often have too many side effects. You can do a lot on your own to get healthier and bring your levels down.
To defeat high cholesterol, your best defense is a strong offense. It’s widely known that Alzheimer’s risk is increased with diabetes, low education, obesity, depression, and smoking. Try to avoid these problems as they are often related to high cholesterol, too.
Use good common sense, such as:
- Ask any and all questions about your health that you’re unsure about.
- Get as educated as you can about Alzheimer’s by reaching out to your community – online and in person.
- Eat lots of fresh foods and vegetables.
- Avoid processed foods and refined sugars.
- Keep depression at bay with exercise for 30 minutes every day.
- Even walking is exercise. Do it if you can.
- Keep your weight in the healthy range.
- Don’t smoke.
- Get plenty of rest.
What can you do to help lower your loved one’s cholesterol level? Will you take them to the doctor? Will you help them get daily exercise? How many other people can you connect with who are at risk for high cholesterol?