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This Is Your Brain on Cholesterol

Too much cholesterol can be bad for your heart. But could it be good for your brain? Nutrition Diva dives into the new research on the potential benefits of cholesterol.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
Episode #511
HD and LDLD cholesterol

We spend most of our adult lives monitoring our cholesterol levels, making sure that they don’t get too high. If they get above a certain number, our doctors are likely to want to put us on cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins.  These drugs have a long track record of reducing deaths from heart disease.

Statin use also appears to reduce the risk of dementia later in life — although it’s not clear how much of this is due to its cholesterol-lowering effects. Statins also reduce inflammation in the body, for example, which might protect the brain.

In fact, some recent studies suggest that, while high cholesterol levels at 50 maybe be bad news, high cholesterol levels at 80 may be just what the doctor ordered. Specifically, researchers have observed that elderly people with high LDL cholesterol levels are less likely to have dementia than those with low cholesterol levels.

How Cholesterol Works in the Brain

Although we often think of cholesterol as a threat, cholesterol is actually an essential component of healthy cells and is especially important in neurons or brain cells. In fact, 25% of the cholesterol in your body is found in the brain!

Here are a few more interesting facts about cholesterol:

  1. Most of the cholesterol in your body does not come from the food you eat. Rather, it is manufactured by your liver.
  2. Eating foods that are high in cholesterol, such as eggs and shrimp, does not have a major impact on your blood cholesterol levels.
  3. Eating foods that are high in saturated fat, on the other hand, does tend to increase blood cholesterol levels.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that eating more saturated fat is a good way to protect yourself against dementia. Paradoxically, although high cholesterol when you’re elderly might be protective, high cholesterol levels at midlife tend to be associated with higher risk of dementia later on in life. For one thing, diets high in saturated fat tend to increase inflammation in the body, which over the long term may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.  

See also: Is Coconut Oil Good for Brain Health?

There are still a lot of gaps in our understanding of the relationship between cholesterol and dementia.  

For example, certain genes that are associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s are also involved in how the body processes cholesterol. And the link between higher cholesterol in midlife and higher risk of dementia later on is clouded by other factors. People with high cholesterol levels often have diabetes or high blood pressure, as well—and these conditions also increase the risk of dementia.

It’s possible that the correlation between cholesterol levels and dementia risk is more circumstantial evidence than a smoking gun. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. After all, we have leapt to conclusions about cholesterol in the past that turned out to be premature.

See also: Is the Link Between Cholesterol and Heart Disease Bogus? 

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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