|May 9, 2005
Millions of Americans take drugs to lower their cholesterol levels and promote heart health. For those with Alzheimer's disease, taking a cholesterol-lowering drug may also help slow mental deterioration and ease behavioral symptoms such as depression, a preliminary study reports.
The yearlong trial involved 46 men and women in the mild to moderate stages of Alzheimer's disease. Half got the popular cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, which goes by the generic name atorvastatin. The others received a lookalike dummy pill, or placebo. Memory and cognitive tests were given every three months, along with tests to measure mood and the ability to carry out everyday tasks.
While both groups showed declines in memory and mental skills after a year, those who received the cholesterol-lowering drug showed less cognitive decline. They also scored slightly higher on mood and behavior tests. The benefits were small, though, and much larger studies must be done before cholesterol drugs can be recommended as a standard treatment for those with Alzheimer's disease.
Doctors are unsure why cholesterol drugs might benefit those with Alzheimer's disease. The researchers in the current study, from the Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Arizona, speculate that lower cholesterol levels may lead to lower levels of beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that can build up in the brain and is thought to underlie the development of Alzheimer's. High cholesterol can also promote inflammation and narrow arteries and blood vessels, including the blood vessels that feed and nourish brain cells essential for thinking and memory.
Lipitor is one of several medications commonly prescribed to lower high cholesterol and belongs to a class of drugs known as "statins." Others statins with similar effects include Mevacor, Pravachol, Zocor, and Lescel. Further testing of these and other drugs is necessary before doctors can confirm that they have true benefits for brain health and memory.
The authors presented preliminary findings from this trial at a medical conference in late 2004. (See the story, "Cholesterol Pill May Slow Alzheimer's Progression".) Cholesterol-lowering drugs have also been proposed as a way to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's in the first place. For more on ongoing research on cholesterol pills and Alzheimer's disease, see the story, "Can taking cholesterol-lowering drugs prevent Alzheimer's disease?."
D. Larry Sparks, PhD, Marwan N. Sabbagh, MD, Donald J. Cramer, PhD, et al: "Atorvastatin for the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Alzheimer's Disease." Archives of Neurology, Volume 62, May 2005, pages 753-757.