- New research links a genetic predisposition to certain types of high blood pressure and high cholesterol to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Researchers say these new findings may help influence the development of drugs to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
- Despite the findings, experts point out that there are a range of risk factors that can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 6 million Americans and is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. But despite its devastating impact, many researchers don’t know what causes the disease. Now, a new study suggests that a family history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol may play a role.
The study, which was published in JAMA, analyzed data from 39,106 people with clinically diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and 401,577 controls who did not have the disease. The researchers found that people who had certain genes leading to higher levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol) had a slightly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not have these genes. They also found a slight increased risk in people who had genes that may contribute to higher systolic blood pressure (the highest number on a blood pressure reading).
The researchers found that there was a 10% increased risk for each increase in HDL cholesterol, as well as a 1.2-fold increase for each 10 mm/Hg increase in systolic blood pressure.
The researchers concluded that the results suggest that HDL cholesterol and systolic blood pressure “may be involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease, which could thereby inspire new drug targeting and improve early prevention of dementia.” .
Study co-author Ruth Frikke-Schmidt, MD, Ph.D., a professor and chief medical officer in the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, said the study’s goal was to trying to identify modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. disease. “To recommend the most effective prevention strategy, we need to identify the modifiable risk factors that directly cause dementia,” she says. Although you can’t help your genetics, they can help “strongly” inform researchers of the direct impact of a specific risk factor. “When we have this evidence, we can more confidently recommend preventing these risk factors from occurring, or if they are already present, they should be treated as soon as possible,” she explains.
But why might high levels of certain types of cholesterol and blood pressure increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and what can you do about it? Experts break it down.
Why is there a link between cholesterol and blood pressure with Alzheimer’s disease?
It’s important to note this, according to Amit Sachdev, MD, MS, medical director of the Department of Neurology at Michigan State University: “The increased risk of dementia with the presence of high blood pressure and high cholesterol is nothing new. ” Dr. Frikke-Schmidt agrees, noting that “high blood pressure is a well-known risk factor for poor brain health.”
But why? “The brain has the densest and most complex vascular system of any organ in the body, filtering oxygen and nutrients through an elaborate blood-brain barrier to ensure that toxins do not reach the electrical grid. sensitive neurons and remove waste from the brain,” says Matthew Schrag. , MD, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. These toxins can build up over time and lead to the development of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, he says.
This is not the first time that high blood pressure has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “This builds on a large 2019 clinical trial called the SPRINT-MIND study, which showed that careful blood pressure control reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia,” says Dr. Schrag.
What experts didn’t know in the past was whether high blood pressure was a direct cause of Alzheimer’s disease or just something related to the disease. “The very important new finding from our study is that we now show that high blood pressure is very likely a direct cause of the future development of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Frikke-Schmidt.
As to why higher levels of HDL cholesterol may be a contributing factor, Dr. Frikke-Schmidt says it could be due to the behavior of HDL particles. “High HDL cholesterol is associated with the presence of large, floating HDL particles that may be dysfunctional in local cholesterol transport within the brain and across the blood-brain barrier,” says Frikke-Schmidt. “This may have implications for the delivery of cholesterol to brain cells and the disposal of sticky waste products.”
Although “the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear,” Michal Beeri, Ph.D., director of the Herbert and Jacqueline Krieger Klein Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at Rutgers University, says both risk factors may have an impact on the blood vessels of the body and the vessels of the brain. . “A healthy cerebral vasculature is crucial for healthy cognitive aging,” she says.
What are the other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease?
Experts point out that high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels aren’t the only potential risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. “Having a family history of systemic disease like high blood pressure or high cholesterol doesn’t mean you’ll end up with Alzheimer’s dementia,” says David MerrillMD, Ph.D., geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California. “There are literally dozens of health risk factors, including some modifiable risk factors, that can be at risk for Alzheimer’s.
Known risk factors, depending on the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC), include:
- A sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- Smoking cigarettes
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Hearing loss
“We are in the midst of a major mindset shift in the field of neurodegenerative disorders and dementia,” Beeri says. “We are learning that, rather than having a single cause, most of these diseases result from a combination of factors, including aging, genetics, inflammation and, most importantly, blood vessel disease.”
How to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease
If you have a family history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, don’t worry. Experts suggest there are things you can do to control these conditions if you develop them.
“Blood pressure control is a promising preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s disease that is inexpensive, accessible to everyone, and backed by strong scientific evidence,” says Beeri. “Keeping blood pressure under control can take a bit of work for some patients, but anyone can buy a reliable blood pressure cuff, check their blood pressure regularly at home, and take those numbers to their doctor.”
Trying to maintain a healthy weight can also help lower high blood pressure and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Frikke-Schmidt.
THE US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends taking the following additional steps to reduce your risk of dementia:
- Manage your blood sugar.
- Eat a good mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, seafood, and unsaturated fats.
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.
- Keep your mind active by reading, playing board games, or learning a new skill.
- Socialize with your family and friends.
- Treat hearing problems.
- Take care of your physical and mental health.
- Aim to sleep seven to eight hours a night.
- Do your best to avoid head injuries, such as wearing shoes with non-slip soles and a helmet when riding a bicycle.
- Do not drink more than one drink per day (for women) and two drinks per day (for men).
- Avoid tobacco products.
If you have a family history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, experts say it’s a good idea to report it to your GP so you can be properly monitored and treated, if needed. “Manage your overall health,” says Dr. Sachdev. “A healthy body leads to a healthy brain.”
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, health and sex, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives near the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.