It has been known for decades that high cholesterol is bad for the heart. Now, a new study by Kaiser Permanente suggests that it may be linked to another health risk, the development of Alzheimer's disease.
James Pitman is 45-years-old and in good shape, but battling border-line high cholesterol.
"They noticed that my cholesterol numbers were higher than they probably should be," he told ABC7.
Now, he is concerned not just about his middle-aged health, but what that condition could lead to. A new study is linking elevated cholesterol to the onset of Alzheimer's disease later in life.
"My grandfather had Alzheimer's, my father's father, and that obviously was a concern of mine," he said.
The study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente tracked nearly 10,000 patients who were between 40- and 45-years-old when they were first diagnosed with elevated cholesterol. Over the next several decades, those with high-cholesterol (240 milligrams or above) had a 66 percent higher chance of developing vascular dementia.
The study also found that those with just slightly elevated cholesterol had a 52 percent higher risk of developing dementia, which is one of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer's.
"I think what's special about this study is we show that not only is high cholesterol a risk factor in dementia, but also borderline levels," explained Rachel Whitmer, doctor at Kaiser Permanente.
Whitmer is a senior author of the study. She says it should encourage patients to lower their cholesterol levels early.
"And, when people have borderline levels, the first step is a change in diet and lifestyle," she added.
The study documents intriguing links between middle-age cholesterol levels and the later onset of Alzheimer's disease, but it has its limitations. Since no family history is taken, there is no way of knowing if patients who later develop Alzheimer's were genetically predisposed to it.
Still, the researchers say their findings coincide with other studies that found early signs of Alzheimer's in the brains of patients who had elevated cholesterol when they died.
"I think a big takeaway message is, 'What's good for the heart is good for the brain.' I also think that even tough dementia is a disease of old age, we need to think about it as a disease of a lifetime. And, by that, what I mean is people need to think about early, modifiable risk factors in mid-life," Whitmer said.
For Pitman, that means continuing with exercise, his vegetarian diet and potentially considering cholesterol medication if his levels do not go down.
"Well, I certainly wanted to take care of my cholesterol numbers to begin with. Then, once I saw the study that linked high cholesterol numbers to Alzheimer's I was even more motivated to do something about it," he said.
Researchers believe further study is now needed to establish the physical relationship between cholesterol in the blood and its potential effect on the brains of Alzheimer's patients.