July 22, 2004
Women with high levels of so-called "good" HDL cholesterol are at lower risk for Alzheimer's disease, a new study from Harvard Medical School reports. That's good news, because exercise, diet, and other lifestyle measures can all work together to help keep levels of this heart-healthy form of cholesterol high.
Cholesterol, a blood fat produced naturally in the body and found in certain foods, comes in many varieties. So-called "bad" cholesterol, or LDL (low density lipoprotein), is the form that can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. "Good" HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, on the other hand, helps to protect the heart and blood vessels, including those that supply food and nourishment to the brain.
As part of the large and ongoing Women's Health Study, Harvard researchers gave extensive physical and mental tests to more than 4,000 women aged 65 and older over several years. They found that women with the highest HDL levels in the range of 60 to 75 mg/dL reduced their risk for Alzheimer's by almost half. (An HDL of 50 or higher is considered to be good for your heart.)
"Clearly HDL is most important in determining a woman's risk," said researcher Elizabeth Devore of Harvard, who conducted the study. Devore noted that regular exercise, losing weight, and moderate alcohol intake just one to two drinks a day have all been shown to increase HDL levels. "But exercise is the most important element, even more important than diet," she said. Other women simply inherit high HDL levels that are genetically determined.
The findings were presented at a recent international conference on Alzheimer's disease in Philadelphia. They add to a growing body of evidence that both genetic and lifestyle factors play a role in who gets Alzheimer's, and when. [See the article, "In Alzheimer's, Nature and Nurture Likely Play Dueling Roles."] Unraveling these factors is an important goal of research. In the meantime, doctors urge you to maintain a healthy lifestyle, with a well rounded diet full or fresh fruits and vegetables and regular exercise, as an essential component of a sound mind and body.
Presentation, The Ninth International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders, Philadelphia, PA, July 21, 2004.