Could Low Cholesterol Cause Dementia?

| April 11, 2011 | Comments (15)

Many people believe that memory loss is an inevitable part of the ageing process that they’re powerless to prevent, and that their chances of developing dementia is a bit like playing Russian roulette… it essentially all comes down to luck or fate.

But nothing could be further from the truth…

It’s well established that diet and exercise play an important role when it comes to promoting heart health. What many people don’t realise is their importance when it comes to keeping your mind sharp as you age and in the prevention of dementia. I was reminded of this recently when reading a study that found that a regular exercise programme, over the course of a year, led to significant improvements in memory [1].

But what of diet? I came across an interesting review recently that focused on the role of nutrition in the condition Alzheimer’s disease [2]. This form of dementia is characterized by the build-up in the brain of a protein known as ‘amyloid-beta’.

One of the major points made in the paper is this: cholesterol and fat are really important to the brain. It points out that although the brain is only about 2 per cent of body weight, it contains about a quarter of the total cholesterol in the body.

The authors of the review point out several roles for cholesterol in the brain, including tiny structures called ‘synapses’. Synapses are the areas where one nerve cell can communicate with another. Communication here is via what are known as ‘neurotransmitters’, which are released by one nerve cell and float across the synaptic gap to exert an effect on the nerve adjacent to it.

The authors of the paper summarise the importance of cholesterol in the brain like this: “Cholesterol is required everywhere in the brain as an antioxidant, an electrical insulator (in order to prevent ion leakage), as a structural scaffold for the neural network, and a functional component of all membranes. Cholesterol is also utilized in the wrapping and synaptic delivery of the neurotransmitters. It also plays an important role in the formation and functioning of synapses in the brain.”

The review also points out that the brain actively takes up cholesterol – in the form of supposedly unhealthy ‘LDL’ cholesterol. This in itself suggests that the brain needs cholesterol and that it does something useful. Interestingly, a gene defect that leads to impaired cholesterol uptake by the brain is also associated with an enhanced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The authors of this review also point out that the fluid that circulates in and around the brain and spinal column (the cerebrospinal fluid) in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease is low in cholesterol and other fats compared to individuals without the disease. Also, those who run low cholesterol levels tend to be at enhanced risk of dementia.

In short, there’s quite a pile of evidence that strongly suggests that cholesterol is critical to proper brain functioning. In light on this, one might consider what effect cholesterol reduction may have in the long term. The review authors point out that “dietary avoidance of fats and cholesterol along with over-zealous prescription of cholesterol-reducing medications over the same decades in which there has been a parallel rise in AD [Alzheimer’s disease] prevalence.”

Such observations do not prove that lowered cholesterol actually causes Alzheimer’s disease, but as the authors point out, “… it gives weight to underlying research showing a possible link between cholesterol depletion and neuronal failure.”

Low cholesterol may turn out to be bad news for the brain. The problem is, any effects here are likely to be gradual, and the full impact of our cholesterol-phobic policy may not be seen for some time to come.

Here’s to a healthy heart

Dr John Briffa
for The Cholesterol Truth

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1. Erickson KI, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. PNAS 31 January 2011 [epub ahead of print]

2. Seneff A, et al. Nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease: The detrimental role of a high carbohydrate diet Eur J Int Med 2011;22:134-140

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Category: Statin Drugs Side Effects

Comments (15)

Testimonials are based on the personal experience of individuals. Results are not typical and the potential benefits of taking any drug or supplement may vary depending on your individual needs and health requirements. Please consult your GP before making any changes to your medical regimen.

  1. Eileen says:

    I am part of a research program for the new drug Repatha to lower my cholesterol level. I inject the drug twice a month and my levels are greatly improving. Now that I read your article on the link between low cholesterol and brain function I’m quite worried. Would prefer to die of heart failure than live with dementia . I’m at a loss as to what to do

  2. Rick Whitehouse says:

    Perhaps the author could comment naturally low lipid levels and dementia. My whole family has low lipids and no dementia , perhaps it is the lowering of lipids over time rather than the absolute level that is important ,

    • admin says:

      In this article…

      “…Such observations do not prove that lowered cholesterol actually causes Alzheimer’s disease, but as the authors point out, ‘… it gives weight to underlying research showing a possible link between cholesterol depletion and neuronal failure.’ “

  3. William Dart says:

    After having a heart attack (coronary artery blockage) in 2006 and a subsequent stroke 10 days later, I was put on Warfarin therapy and Statins (40mg.Lipitor). Immediately had tingling sensation in my left arm & hand with severe muscle pain and loss of strength in almost every part of my body. Told by my Cardiologist and GP that it couldn’t possibly be due to Lipitor, but my Neurologist wasn’t ruling it out, so I hassled the GP to prescribe me Crestor in much lower dosage (5mg.). I still suffered from muscle pain but the tingling gradually stopped after supplementing my diet with 100mg. of Co-Q10 daily. I went for 3 months without any Statin and the pain reduced but my cholesterol levels increased to 4.1 Total & 2.7 LDL so went back to 5mg. Crestor but only half daily. Still in so much pain that I take 50-100mg. Tramadol daily and after many MRI’s & X-rays cannot find any other reasons for the pain. I am now going to dump Statins for good and hopefully feel better in every way.

    • William Dart says:

      Update: 4 years later and Statin free. I now only take 10mg. Ezetimibe (Ezetrol) which only reduces cholesterol absorption from food but doesn’t have any effect on cholesterol generation in the brain. I no longer have the burning and tingling sensations and the brain functions clearly and memory is quite good, but motor neurone function is depleted. I am becoming clumsy and drop things easily and never used to be; I am only 61. WARNING!!!!! Never ever take Statins! The drug companies are now trying to find other reasons to peddle these gutter drugs. Don’t ever take them for any reason whatsoever.

  4. CeeCee says:

    Take control of your health! Just because the guy in the white coat says you have to take the drugs, doesn’t mean you HAVE to! Do your own research and make you OWN decision. Your life (and your brain) may depend on it!

  5. Karen says:

    Coconut oil increase HDL good cholesterol, Mary T Newport, a Doctor in the U.S. has written a book with experiences she has had helping her husband. Using this info to help my mom and am starting to see good results. Book is-Alzheimers Disease: What If There Was A Cure–she used coconut oil and 60/40 Alpha blend. Her husband has greatly improved.

  6. Jim says:

    I was taking lipitor for about 2 years before I stopped because of muscle ache, my muscles shrunk, my equipment shrunk and cannot function. Once I stopped, everything went back to normal. Taking slow niacin 500 mg twice a day and coQ10 helped lower my cholesterol.

  7. diabetic says:

    I am diabetic 3 years now and was put on simvastatin. I suffer terrible muscle pains in my legs and feet but GP won’t take me off them.

  8. Jo Fowler says:

    Have been trawling for info on Blood pressure medication and saw this item on Statins. Am interested as my husband has been taking statins for the last year.

  9. helencoyne says:

    takingula lipitor for about 5yrs.nd find its effecting my circulation always feel cold nd feels it is effecting my memory in am on lowest dose i eat well nd exercise. i am wondering if i could come off thetum with good diet. i also have arthritus, i am 69yrs.

  10. Green Lady says:

    Our brain consists mostly of fatty tissues, we need fats. BTW, if you are aware about breastfeeding issues, you probably know about the so-called milk imbalance, when the baby does not receive hind milk rich in fats, which results in slow growth development. The problem is that most people don’t differentiate between healthy and unhealthy fats. I only now thought maybe fats are the reason why humans mentally overcame other animals?

  11. Roger Hempel says:

    In 2007 I started to get breathless when I walked so went for tests,Christmas day had mild heart attack,April 2008 had double bypass,put on statins even though cholesterol is 3.4,have muscle pains ever since,doctor says can’t come off.Also have three stents put in but still have problems breathing.Is there not a better way to manage my cholesterol?

  12. Anne Armstrong says:

    My husband has inherited high cholesterol levels . He is very fit, slim ,does not smoke . He was recently put on statins and after 3 days his knee and ankle joints were so swollen he could not walk, his joints are still painful 6 months later . Needless to say he stopped the statins.

  13. Dave Bullock says:

    Because I had a stroke (immediately post-op) I was put on Lipitor which considerably worsened my liver function test results. I lost energy and then developed tingling all down my right arm. Some years later a gallstone moved and I was kept in hospital for 5 days with pancreatitis during which time I didn’t take the Lipitor. My energy returned and the tingling disappeared. My GP is pro statins but I’m anti.

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Testimonials are based on the personal experience of individuals. Results are not typical and the potential benefits of taking any drug or supplement may vary depending on your individual needs and health requirements. Please consult your GP before making any changes to your medical regimen.