We're pretty blown away by how early in life this link exists.
Advertisement
An illustration of a brain surrounded by red blood cells
Credit: Getty Images / Jolygon / seamartini

"If I could turn back time" is not only a popular Cher lyric, but it's also something some of us might be thinking more often as we get older. Remember when climbing the stairs didn't feel quite so creaky and hangovers were harder to come by? Well if you're in your 30s or younger, we have some hopeful news you can use: you still have plenty of time to shift your lifestyle to reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease.

About 6.2 million Americans are currently living with some form of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and by 2060, they expect that number to jump to 14 million. At its current rate, Alzheimer's is the fifth leading cause of death among Americans 65 and older, the CDC adds. Understandably, scientists are hustling to learn more about how to slow the increase in cases.

Building on earlier research about how eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, scoring enough sleep and having an active social life can lower the chances that you develop dementia later in life, a new study published in the Alzheimer's and Dementia journal found that having low HDL ("good") cholesterol, high triglyceride levels and high glucose levels in the blood at age 35 may be related to higher risk for Alzheimer's disease later in life.

"There are a lot of factors at play that can lead to an Alzheimer's diagnosis, some of which are totally out of our control, like our genetic makeup. But research shows that a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle behaviors can be protective against Alzheimer's and other diseases," explains registered dietitian Victoria Seaver, M.S., RD, associate editorial director for EatingWell.com.

What This Alzheimer's Disease Study Found

Previous studies show that metabolic-related health biomarkers at age 55 might predict our likelihood for cognitive impairment later in life, but this new study is among the first to suggest that our lifestyle choices at the young age of 35 might severely impact our brains later on. By determining how early this connection might exist, the scientists hope to learn more about the way our brains change throughout the lifespan.

For this study, the researchers tapped into data from 4,932 participants in the Framingham Heart Study, who started—on average—at age 37. Each four years from 1971 to 2016, they had health exams that tracked the following information:

  • HDL and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol
  • Blood glucose
  • Blood pressure
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Number of cigarettes smoked per day

At the second and all following exams, the individuals also had cognitive assessments to track any possible cognitive decline. The researchers found that three data points had the highest correlation with the development of Alzheimer's disease: high triglyceride levels, low HDL levels and high blood glucose. These findings were particularly strong at the first, second, sixth and seventh examinations.

"Diseases progress over our lifetime. If we're seeing high levels of triglycerides, cholesterol and/or glucose at age 35, without an intervention, that means our body is exposed to the negative effects of those high levels for longer. Think: inflammation," Seaver adds. "The chronic inflammation caused by high triglycerides, cholesterol and glucose over a long period of time can do damage to our brain—and the rest of our body."

More research, especially among more diverse populations, is required to clarify these results. (The vast majority of the study participants were white.) Still, with this finding top of mind, the researchers say that it proves that early intervention to maintain (or get to) healthy HDL, triglyceride and glucose levels can lower risk for Alzheimer's.

The Bottom Line

Whatever your age when start implementing healthier choices, you'll be building the foundation for a stronger, sharper future.

"Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, lean protein sources (including plant-based protein sources), whole grains, healthy fats and calcium- and vitamin D-rich dairy or dairy alternatives is the way to go," Seaver says. "And when it comes to eating for healthy cholesterol and glucose levels in particular, being mindful of how much added sugar and processed foods you eat is important. And healthy lifestyle habits, like exercising regularly, not smoking and keeping alcohol intake to a minimum, also help protect your brain—and the rest of your body—as you age."