High Cholesterol Levels Linked to Alzheimer Disease Risk, Researchers Say

People who accumulate plaque on their arteries may be more prone to another insidious type of buildup -- one that clogs their brains.

Scientists who tested the cholesterol levels of 147 patients found that those with the highest readings were more likely to also have the brain plaque that signals Alzheimer’s disease. The research was published today in the medical journal Neurology.

The findings suggest that lowering cholesterol levels early in life may reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease that starts with forgetfulness and eventually saps memories and independence. Doctors have struggled to understand, predict and slow the advance of the illness ever since it was first described by German doctor Alois Alzheimer more than a century ago.

“Our study clearly makes the point that high cholesterol may contribute directly or indirectly to plaques in the brain,” Kensuke Sasaki, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, said in a telephone interview. “The management of cholesterol levels early on may lead to preventing Alzheimer’s disease later.”

Sasaki and his colleagues tested the cholesterol of 2,587 adults aged 40 to 79 in southern Japan 23 years ago and sought permission to autopsy those patients after they died to look for plaques and tangles in the brain that signal Alzheimer’s.

The results, based on the 147 participants who were autopsied, show that 86 percent of those with high cholesterol had brain plaques, compared with 62 percent of those with low cholesterol.

The researchers will continue to gather data, Sasaki said. The study is funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the country’s health ministry.

Alzheimer’s disease afflicts about 36 million people worldwide, a number that is expected to double by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy group based in Chicago. Existing drugs temporarily ease symptoms and none cure the condition.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at kmatsuyama2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jason Gale at j.gale@bloomberg.net.

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