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High Cholesterol Diet Impacts Memory, Brain Changes


High cholesterol foods like cheese, meats, butter, and cream can be hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Avoiding them may be a wise move, however, as researchers have shown that a chronic high fat cholesterol diet in rats results in memory and brain changes similar to those characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

High cholesterol intake can affect your brain

Memory and cognitive problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia do not appear overnight. Some experts have suggested that Alzheimer’s begins two to three decades before symptoms become apparent, and scientists are working to develop tests to identify this and other forms of dementia in those earlier years.

A new study from the Laboratory of Psychiatry and Experimental Alzheimer’s Research at the Medical University Innsbruck in Austria examined the impact of a high-cholesterol diet in adult rats. One group of rats was fed a normal diet while a second group was fed a diet enriched with 5 percent additional cholesterol. After five months the animals were tested for behavioral deficits and pathological markers similar to those researchers have found in the brains of individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease.

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The rats fed the high cholesterol diet demonstrated memory problems, inflammation, enhanced cortical beta-amyloid and tau (two major hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease), and bleeding in the brain, all indications of Alzheimer’s-like pathology. These findings support those in previous studies in which investigators found that high levels of cholesterol and other lipids may be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disease that affects approximately 5.3 million people in America and is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. It is a progressive disease that causes brain changes and impacts memory and other cognitive functions. The exact causes of the disease are not known, but genetic variations, the presence of beta-amyloid and tau proteins, a protein called clusterin, homocysteine, and other factors have all been named as possible culprits.

Dr. Christian Humpel, who led the new study, and fellow authors note that Alzheimer’s disease is a complex condition, and although their findings indicate a high cholesterol diet has a role in memory and brain changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s disease, they do not lead to the conclusion that it is solely responsible for the dementia.

Alzheimer’s Association
Humpel C et al. Molecular Cellular Neuroscience 2010; 45(4): 408-17