Lowering Cholesterol May Protect Against Alzheimer's
> 8/28/2007 2:33:00 PM

The current consensus is that Alzheimer's is brought on by an accumulation of amyloid-beta and abnormal tau proteins, which accrete in the brain into neural plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. When Dr. Larry Sparks noticed that animals fed a high-cholesterol diet in the laboratory had elevated levels of amyloid-beta, he wondered if there might be a connection between cholesterol and Alzheimer's disease. In 2004, he was able to present compelling evidence of this connection at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions.

Dr. Sparks studied 25 elderly patients with early Alzheimer's symptoms to look for any difference between a placebo group and a group taking Lipitor, one of the commonly used statin drugs that lower cholesterol. 28% of the placebo group managed to stave off any worsening in symptoms after a year, but a significantly higher 53% of those taking Lipitor remained stable. In the first three months, scores for memory and cognitive function were close, but as time went on the benefit of Lipitor became more apparent.

These findings were controversial. Some other studies failed to show any benefit from statins, and Dr. William Thies warned WebMD that, "All [Dr. Sparks] is reporting in this study is clinical results; there is no autopsy evidence that amyloid in the brain is reduced." Fortunately, Dr. Gail Li published a study this month in Neurology that supplies the autopsy evidence. Dr. Li examined the brains of 110 participants in the Adult Changes in Thought study and found that while there was no difference in neuronal plaque, the patients who took statins had far fewer neurofibrillary tangles.

It is not clear why neural plaque remained unaffected by statins, or even whether plaques and tangles are the primary cause of Alzheimer's, but Dr. Liís autopsies do back up previous cognitive test findings with physical evidence. When performance and brain structure are both affected by statins, it is safe to assume that cholesterol is linked to Alzheimer's. Until the link can be fully explicated, here is a helpful rule of thumb: If you canít remember how many pieces of cheesecake you have just eaten, it is time to stop.

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