High Cholesterol May Support the Formation of Plaques in the Brain

More than 70 million Americans currently live with high cholesterol. Known to play a key role in heart and brain health, this waxy substance is commonly associated with heart disease and stroke. However, cholesterol is also a key component of the cell wall. This has led to a troubling new link between Alzheimer’s and brain cholesterol.

Study Finds a Link Between Cholesterol and Amyloid-Beta

Researchers have now discovered that cholesterol may influence the formation of amyloid-beta.

A well-known variable in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s, amyloid-beta forms into plaques that kill brain cells. This new study, published in Nature Chemistry, has found that cholesterol may actually act as a catalyst for these toxic protein clusters.

Although researchers have focused on the role of amyloid-beta in recent years, they still do not fully understand how these clusters form, to begin with. What they do know is that this protein does not typically stick together. This is because the amyloid-beta protein is generally present in low levels and is distributed across the brain.

One study in 2009 actually found that amyloid-beta may be essential for normal brain function. Shown to support normal information transfer, complete removal may cause neuronal function impairment. It is once this protein begins to aggregate that significant issues develop.

During this most recent study, the researchers found that amyloid-beta sticks to lipids. More specifically, amyloid-beta was found to stick particularly well to cell membranes containing cholesterol. It became clear that once stuck, if they are in the vicinity of other “stuck” amyloid-beta molecules, there is a greater chance that clusters will form.

It was concluded that when cholesterol is present, amyloid-beta clusters form 20 times faster than they would have otherwise. This finding helps rationalize the link between the impairment of cholesterol homeostasis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cholesterol And the Human Brain

High cholesterol is known to increase your risk of health complications. However, although a well-known cause of heart disease, cholesterol is also essential for human health. As stated above, it is a component of cell membranes and is also imperative when building various hormones.

The brain only accounts for 2 percent of the body’s weight. However, approximately one-quarter of all the cholesterol in the human body is found in the brain. 

Scientists have stated that higher levels of HDL or “good” — and lower levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol may protect the heart and brain. In comparison, high LDL levels across time are associated with an increased risk of both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

The ApoE4 Gene and Cholesterol

With so many variables, there is conflicting evidence surrounding the role that cholesterol plays in the development of Alzheimer’s. However, while studying the ApoE4 gene, this link becomes more apparent. ApoE4 is a well-known risk for Alzheimer’s and produces a protein that processes lipids. This includes the processing of cholesterol within human cells.

While studying mice with features of Alzheimer’s, scientists from University College London manipulated the protein known as ACAT1. This altered cholesterol levels, reducing the build-up of Alzheimer’s proteins. Once again, this shows how complex this disease is, while strengthening the relationship between cholesterol and degenerative neural health.

If you do believe that you or a loved one are suffering from cognitive impairment, please consider the BrainTest® app. Providing you with baseline results, this assessment tool can help you detect early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and more.

Lowering Your Cholesterol

If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you are not powerless to your current condition. In fact, some simple lifestyle changes will not only reduce your cholesterol but actually improve the effectiveness of your medications. In some cases, you may be able to eliminate these drugs from your care plan. This is something that you can discuss with your physician.

Some of the top tips, all of which are easy to implement, include:

  • Start eating healthy fats while significantly lowering your intake of saturated fats (the fats found primarily in dairy products and red meat). You should also eliminate trans fats from your diet, as these fats increase bad LDL cholesterol levels while increasing HDL cholesterol. Consume more wild-caught fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel), walnuts, flaxseeds, oysters, and chia seeds.

  • Unfortunately, it is estimated that less than 3 percent of Americans get enough fiber each day. Although you should be consuming around 31 grams/day, the average intake is around 15 grams. This is not only causing concerns rounding cholesterol, but also obesity, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. Add more soluble fiber to your current diet. This includes beans, low-glycemic fruit, oats, lentils, and vegetables.

  • The research has shown that exercise lowers cholesterol, reducing LDL levels while increasing HDL. After discussing an exercise plan with your doctor, you should aim for 30 minutes daily. Whether that means you take a brisk walk on your lunch break or swim laps each morning, it is important to get moving. This will also help you address your weight, as losing even 5-10 pounds can improve cholesterol levels.

  • Drink alcohol in moderation and quit smoking. Both of these habits threaten numerous organs, and increase your risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer.

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Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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