High-density lipoproteins might be your brain's BFFs, new research finds. Discover the best foods and activities to naturally raise your levels—and potentially lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease while you're at it.

The top 7 risk factors for heart disease, including smoking, physical inactivity and high blood pressure, all earn a spot on the list of 13 things that have been scientifically proven to make us more likely to get Alzheimer's disease (plus a few more social and environmental factors). And just last month, we learned that blood sugar and cholesterol at age 35 might help doctors predict how likely we are to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's later in life.

It's not just the "bad cholesterol," or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides (another type of fat found in the blood), that matter in terms of cholesterol, however. New research published on April 13 in the Alzheimer's Association journal Alzheimer's & Dementia found that high levels of "good cholesterol"(aka high-density lipoprotein or HDL) can help lower risk for Alzheimer's disease.

What This Alzheimer's Disease Research Found

To land at this finding, Hussein Yassine, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and his research team dove into data from 141 healthy adults aged 60 or older, clocking in at an average age of about 77. Each individual received three exams:

  • A battery of cognitive tests
  • A blood plasma test (aka cholesterol test)
  • An ion mobility test to measure the size and amount of HDL particles in cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid that flows ​​through the brain and spinal cord, which together form the central nervous system that coordinates muscle movement, organ function, thinking and all that our bodies do)

"This study represents the first time that small HDL particles in the brain have been counted," Yassine told USC's Keck School News. "They may be involved with the clearance and excretion of the peptides that form the amyloid plaques we see in Alzheimer's disease, so we speculate that there could be a role for these small HDL particles in prevention." (Those plaques, by the way, are formed when peptides called amyloid-beta 42 fold incorrectly and adhere to brain cells in clumps that can lead to inflammation and disrupt normal brain cell functioning.)

So what is HDL, exactly? It's a type of cholesterol that carries fat molecules that get stuck in our arteries, like LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, to the liver to be excreted. This can help improve blood flow and prevent plaque buildup.

"LDL and triglycerides are often considered the 'bad' cholesterol, because over time they can lead to conditions such as atherosclerosis and other chronic diseases," explains Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., RDN, CPT, a San Diego-based registered dietitian and the author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies. "When the body has too many of these, they can inhibit the way our body communicates and functions due to the plaque buildup throughout the body. If the brain cannot get the necessary nutrients, blood flow and oxygen it needs, it will have repercussions on nearly every aspect of health."

Yassine says this is the first time research has linked the small HDL particles in the brain to better cognitive function. He believes the HDL might help "escort" those amyloid plaques out of the brain and, in turn, help reduce risk for or progression of Alzheimer's disease.

An an illustration of a brain with clouds floating around it on a background with red blood cells
Credit: Getty Images / timandtim / seamartini / Nastco

5 Ways to Raise HDL Levels

"What we're finding here is that before the onset of cognitive impairment, these oils—these small HDL particles—are lubricating the system and keeping it healthy," Yassine told the Keck School News. "You've got a time to intervene with exercise, drugs or whatever else to keep brain cells healthy." Here are five expert suggestions to help boost your HDL.

1. Move More

Make your workday work for you. Instead of sitting in front of a video screen or across a conference room table, schedule a walking meeting, Shaw suggests. "Anytime you can, book a walking meeting with a colleague or a friend. Whether on the phone or in person, this will add more steps to your daily routine, which in the long run can have a huge impact on your overall health and cholesterol."

2. Start Small

Think small. No, you don't need to finish a marathon to be "fit." (Although hats off to you if that's your style!) Shaw says that even little, simple steps to incorporate more movement into your routine add up. "If you're currently not moving, starting with a goal such as spending an hour at the gym every single day will be tough to stick with," Shaw says. "Try to make it realistic, doable and something you enjoy. Maybe this is parking at the very last spot in the parking lot, walking to your kid's baseball game once a week or doing a 10-minute YouTube workout whenever you can squeeze it in during the day."

3. Nosh on Healthy Fats

Get your fat fix. Healthy unsaturated fats, that is. "Research proves that avocados, salmon and olive oil as part of a healthy, balanced diet may help improve cholesterol levels," Shaw says.

4. Up Your Fiber Intake

Fill up on fiber. Beans and legumes, whole grains and berries also earn a spot on our list of the 8 best foods for healthy cholesterol.

5. Enjoy a Drink in Moderation

Drink alcohol in moderation. Light to moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day or less) may help raise HDL levels, research proves. Just try to keep the ounces in check; chronic excessive consumption of alcohol has been correlated with higher risk for accidents, certain cancers, liver disease and heart disease.

The Bottom Line

"While more research is needed, this is a great opportunity for medical pros to focus on lifestyle intervention for individuals at risk for, or diagnosed with, Alzheimer's disease," Shaw says.

Even if the impact of HDL cholesterol on the brain isn't as direct as this study suggests—they hope to look at the effect of other cardiometabolic factors and dive into larger populations over time—it certainly can't hurt to implement more measures to raise your HDL levels. Beyond possibly reducing risk for cognitive decline, this can help lower risk for heart disease, decrease chronic inflammation and lead to a longer, stronger life.