High Cholesterol and Dementia: Can Diet Help with Progression ?

Several studies over the past decade have looked at the possible link between cholesterol and dementia, specifically vascular dementia, which is caused by conditions such as stroke that disrupt blood flow to the brain. Along with this, it is often suggested that bad cholesterol is something to avoid; the fatty substance that is found in our blood and cells that can make us at higher risk for life-threatening illnesses, such as stroke and heart disease.

As we age, doctors may guide us as to what foods to cut out or consume in moderation to avoid LDLs (low-density lipoprotein), the bad cholesterol associated with plaque buildup in the arteries. Foods with LDLs include sweets, full-fat dairy products, red meats, fried foods, and processed foods like bacon and white bread. For some people, it takes getting a heart attack or having another life-threatening occurrence to provide a necessary wake-up call that elicits a change in our diets. However, studies have indicated that our hearts are not the only organ at risk.

Connection between Cholesterol and Dementia

“Evidence suggests that there is a relationship between having high cholesterol levels in the blood in mid-life, and going on to develop dementia,” as stated by the Alzheimer’s Society (UK).

Now, why would there be a connection? Cholesterol only affects a person’s blood and heart, yes?

Researchers are interested in observing how cholesterol in the brain can tamper with brain cells. Fat build-up in our arteries and brain cells has a negative impact on our bodies. Not only are researchers looking at cholesterol and its possible connection to dementia, but specifically, the effectiveness of medications used to treat high cholesterol.

The Federal Drug Administration issued a warning in 2017 that statin users had reported increased cognitive impairment when taking the drugs. Statins, also known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, are a class of lipid-lowering medications, i.e., they reduce the amount of fat in cells and the blood.

This raised many questions for the researchers and the public.

Are statins causing early on-set memory loss?
Do statins speed up the dementia process?
Can statins reduce too many of the necessary fats in brain cells?

Subsequent research has focused on studying the possible correlations.

“While you would expect that statin use would reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia because statins lower cardiovascular risks and the risk of stroke, it hasn’t been clearly shown to be the case,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It’s surprising that there’s not a clearer reduction seen. If anything, some of these studies have raised concerns about cognitive risks.”

Diet Connection to Dementia

This does not mean one should avoid or stop taking prescribed statins. Keeping your heart healthy is key. However, the medical discourse does seem to put things into perspective. Taking more heart and cholesterol precautions early on could help a person to avoid the need for statins. Incorporating more fibrous and whole foods, like fish high in omega-3 fats, oats, beans, nuts, and other plant-based foods, can also help the body to naturally lower LDLs.

High blood pressure, problems with the heartbeat’s rhythm, diabetes, and high cholesterol can increase a person’s risk of vascular dementia, in particular. By controlling or managing risk factors, you may lower the chance of developing cognitive impairment and dementia. A doctor might recommend managing risk factors, such as high cholesterol, during the dementia treatment process.

The Mayo Clinic says “While, some studies suggest that vitamin E supplements may be helpful for Alzheimer’s disease, the results have been mixed. Taking vitamin E supplements is generally not recommended, but including foods high in vitamin E, such as nuts, in your diet, is.”

Although it has not been proven that foods can stop dementia or its progression, research has shown that a diet with lower cholesterol can slow cognitive decline, in some cases. Fish high in omega-3s, like DHA and EPA, can support the protection of nerve cell membranes found in the brain.

Food also plays a role in how we deal with stress. When caring for a person with dementia, eliminating as much stress as possible is crucial. High amounts of cortisol, a hormone that regulates stress and metabolism, can be found in low-fiber, processed, and high-fat foods. Switching to diets focused on low-cholesterol can manage natural cortisol production, while not adding any additional cortisol. This can alleviate stress and help in the aiding process of those with dementia.

The field of dementia research and care is constantly evolving; new studies are published and findings are being made, so it is difficult to make concrete claims about what can be helpful. Also, each case is different; each patient is unique. It is important to consult with one’s doctor about the best care plan, which can include a low-cholesterol diet. Protecting a person’s heart, cell support, stress management, and overall health with a nutrient-rich diet can be extremely beneficial in a person’s dementia care.

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