High cholesterol in midlife linked to later-life dementia

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A growing number of studies have found a significant link between high cholesterol levels in midlife and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia later in life. Swap fatty foods for healthier options this Christmas and get tested now, says a leading testing expert.

Bad news for those of us planning to eat a lot at Christmas. High cholesterol levels in middle age can increase our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by up to 40% in our later years. Alzheimer’s/dementia is the leading cause of death in England.

A leading medical expert is analyzing the latest research and is now calling for cholesterol level testing for everyone aged 40-60 to help reduce their chances of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s when they get older.

Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan (MBCHB), clinical lead at the London Medical Laboratory, said: ‘The link between high cholesterol levels in middle age and later onset of dementia now appears to be proven. Much research points to the fact that high – or even moderately high – cholesterol in midlife is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

‘This is extremely significant, as preventive measures for these life-changing conditions have traditionally started later in life. Now we can examine people in their 50s and assess their diet and lifestyle to manage or reduce their risk of future dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

‘However, to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, action should be taken before high cholesterol levels begin. Behavioral and lifestyle changes are essential to combating the dementia epidemic.

‘Anyone planning to eat red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, may want to think again this Christmas. Traditional foods like pigs in blankets are particularly problematic, as both sausage and bacon are processed meats high in saturated fat. Sadly, full-fat dairy products including cream, whole milk and butter should also be cut back this Christmas, as these foods are known to increase the risk of high cholesterol.

Why does high cholesterol increase the risk of dementia? This year, groundbreaking research from the Heart Research Institute UK found that LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol, binds to a protein called “tau” in neurons, which crosses the blood-brain barrier and can lead to dementia. The institute claims that up to 40% of a person’s dementia risk can be attributed to modifiable risk factors such as diet. It says: “This is the first time we have been able to definitively say that there is a direct link between what we eat and our cognitive decline.”

The finding, published in the journal Neurology, mirrors previous research that found high midlife cholesterol levels increased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease three decades later. Alarmingly, the study also found that even moderately elevated cholesterol in midlife was associated with a long-term risk of Alzheimer’s. It found that midlife cholesterol levels higher than just 220 mg/dl (5.6mmo/L) increased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s three decades later. Traditionally, cholesterol levels greater than 240 mg/dl (6.2 mmol/L) have been considered high, so this level is low.

A separate study published in Neurology monitored the cholesterol levels of 8,845 participants between 1964 and 1973, when they were between the ages of 40 and 44. When these individuals were studied again in the 2000s, it was clear that, for some people, the presence of multiple cardiovascular risk factors in midlife significantly increased their risk of late-life dementia. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes in midlife were each associated with a 20-40% increased risk of dementia in later years, with high cholesterol and diabetes being the most significant risk factors.

‘Clearly, screening for elevated cholesterol levels is needed to quickly identify who is at risk in all age groups. Current trial policy is largely based on treatment of cardiovascular problems rather than preventive treatment of dementia. Cholesterol testing and subsequent treatment plans and lifestyle advice should be tailored based on more holistic decision-making. Testing routines must consider not only the risk of heart attack and stroke, but also dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems. As GP surgeries are extremely busy at this time of year, it is important to recognize that there are options. The most common option is the finger-prick cholesterol blood test, which can be taken at home or at many local community pharmacies.

‘London Medical Laboratory’s revolutionary and convenient home finger-prick cholesterol profile test measures total cholesterol, LDL “bad cholesterol”, HDL “good” cholesterol, non-HDL (a newly adopted, more accurate, measure) and other key markers. It can be picked up by post at home or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer these tests at over 95 selected pharmacies and health shops across London and nationwide.

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