High cholesterol in middle-age increases dementia risk when older, major study finds

People who have high cholesterol levels in middle-age are at an increased risk of developing dementia later in life, a major new study has found.

The study, which monitored more than 1.8 million adults in the UK, provides the strongest evidence so far on the relationship between blood cholesterol and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

It found raised levels of a particular type of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), were linked to an increased risk of developing the condition.

Brenda Whittle, 78, was found to have high cholesterol in her 40s and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2015
Brenda Whittle, 78, was found to have high cholesterol in her 40s and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015

Brenda Whittle, 78, was diagnosed with dementia in April 2015 after being found to have high cholesterol in her early forties. She and her husband, Stephen, are finding life is increasingly difficult.

“We have to do a lot more for her – reminding Brenda to do all of the basic things, like getting washed and brushing her teeth,” Mr Whittle told Sky News.

“She will do them but she always needs to be reminded and sometimes she might need physical help because the Alzheimer’s does affect the body’s muscles to some extent so sometimes she needs help putting clothes on.

“It is a horrible disease really in that you know that things can’t get any better.”

The couple, who have been married for 59 years, have read this latest piece of research with interest due to Brenda’s high cholesterol.

She was treated in her forties with statins, so they are unsure if cholesterol could have caused her dementia.

But now the link has been made, Mr Whittle has this message for younger adults: “Certainly we would say to them eat a good diet, make sure that you don’t eat things that excessively raise your cholesterol and maybe in your late 30s, 40s get tested because if you are high in cholesterol, well – go on some statins.”

The study, published in Lancet Healthy Longevity, was led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with the University of Tsukuba, Japan and OXON Epidemiology, London and Madrid.

Lead author Dr Masao Iwagami said: “Our study dwarfs in size all previous studies and provides really precise results.

“In people with cholesterol measured below age 65, the risk of dementia being diagnosed more than 10 years later was about 60% higher in those with LDL cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dL compared to those with levels less than 100 mg/dL.”

Hannah Churchill, from the Alzheimer’s Society which funded the research, said it is important people know that many cases of dementia could be prevented if people were more aware of the risk factors.

They also include excessive alcohol consumption, high blood pressure, obesity, head injuries and exposure to air pollution later in life.

Health officials want more testing of cholesterol and blood pressure
Reducing high cholesterol and blood pressure can help reduce the risk of getting dementia

“In the UK, we estimate that there are over 850,000 people living with dementia and that number is likely to rise to around a million by 2025, so that’s a huge figure,” she said.

“Research shows that around 40% of cases may be preventable so there are steps that we can take to prevent those cases.

“Some factors are easy to tackle, some factors are more difficult but it is really important that people realise that dementia is not just a natural part of ageing, there are things that we can do to reduce our risk like keeping ourselves active, eating well and looking after our cardiovascular health.”

The study’s authors acknowledged limitations including the lack of information on diet or physical activity, so it is not possible to assess the influence of these factors on blood cholesterol and how it might affect the observed associations.

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