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Posted: October 21, 2008

Good Cholesterol May Fortify Memory as You Age

Having a higher level of so-called good cholesterol may help protect your memory, while low levels of HDL cholesterol may signal a risk of dementia, according to a British study.

“A low level of HDL may be a risk factor for memory loss in late midlife,' said Archana Singh-Manoux, the study’s lead author and a senior research fellow at University College London and the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research. Because memory loss is key to the diagnosis of dementia, he said, “Low HDL cholesterol might also be a risk factor for dementia.'


The research team led by Singh-Manoux tracked the health of 3,673 civil servants in London and compared their memories to their cholesterol levels at two different times over a 13-year period. At age 55, those with low levels of good (HDL) cholesterol were 27% more likely to have memory loss than those with high levels. The gap increased with time, with memory problems 53% more common in those with the least HDL by the time they reached age 60.


The findings were published in the medical journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.


Earlier research indicated that high levels of HDL cholesterol protect against heart disease, a finding that has spurred drug makers to focus on ways to boost good cholesterol. The most effective approach is a natural trigger found in niacin, a type of vitamin B, but niacin can also cause flushing in patients.


Singh-Manoux’s team, reporting in the journal, said it is not yet clear how good cholesterol and memory loss are related. HDL removes excess cholesterol from the blood, helps the synapses between nerve cells mature and may control the formation of amyloid plaque that develops in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients, they said.


In an editorial accompanying the report, Anatol Kontush and M. John Chapman, from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, said that in spite of the finding, it is still too early to try to raise HDL cholesterol with medicine in an attempt to ward off Alzheimer’s.


“It is tempting to speculate that increasing levels of HDL-C, or ‘good cholesterol’ might protect our memories,' they wrote. “However, unfortunate results in large interventional trials with dietary antioxidants suggest that we should remain cautious when proposing therapeutic intervention on the basis of observational studies.'


The lower HDL might simply be a sign of increased risk of memory loss or dementia, not a cause of the problem, they said. If that's the case, boosting HDL levels won't help the patient.


“Nonetheless, these studies demand that we focus more effort on research' into HDL and brain function, they wrote.

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