Learn how keeping your cholesterol in check is vital for your brain health.
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Keeping your heart and brain in tip-top shape is critical for a long, healthy life. That's not surprising, considering heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in America and Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia, ranks at No. 7. While several dementia risk factors—such as age, genetics and family history—are not modifiable, research shows there are several other dementia risk factors within your control.

Healthy lifestyle habits can improve biomarkers associated with an increased risk of chronic illness, including heart disease, diabetes and dementia. Some of these biomarkers include your cholesterol levels. According to a new study published on November 12, 2022, in Scientific Reports, having high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol) is linked to an increased risk of all types of dementia.

Keep reading to learn more about the findings and the link between heart health and dementia. Plus, we'll give helpful lifestyle tips for you to support your heart and brain health while reducing your dementia risk.

What the Research Says

These findings resulted from a nationwide, population-based cohort study that explored the link between cholesterol levels and dementia risk, including vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease, in the presence of diabetes and statin use. Researchers examined datasets from the Korean National Health Insurance Services that included a staggering 6,883,494 individuals aged 40 and older who underwent health examinations in 2009. During an eight-year follow-up period, researchers detected 263,185 dementia cases—nearly 4% of the cohort. Among the study participants, those with high LDL cholesterol levels had the highest risk of all-cause dementia, regardless of whether they had diabetes or not.

Anja Wagner, MD, FACC, a cardiovascular disease specialist with Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute at St. Vincent's Medical Center, tells EatingWell, "It's assumed that high cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia) increase the risk of dementia. The association is present for both vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease, although the magnitude of risk is higher for vascular dementia."

Additionally, the researchers noted that the study participants who used statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) were more likely to develop dementia. Whether it's type 1 or type 2, several other studies have found that diabetes is associated with a significantly increased dementia risk later in life. "High levels of insulin resistance cause type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance in the body has been linked to a decline in cognitive function and an increased risk of dementia," explains Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, registered dietitian and diabetes educator.

Tips for Boosting Your Heart and Brain Health

Fortunately, improving your cholesterol levels and reducing your risks of dementia and diabetes are within your control. And adopting healthy lifestyle habits can slash your odds of developing dementia later in life. To help guide you, The American Heart Association (AHA) created Life's Essential 8, a checklist for good lifelong health that reduces your risk of chronic illness, including heart disease, dementia and diabetes.

Consider implementing the following habits into your daily life to boost your heart and brain health:

  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils such as olive and canola oil. Wagner recommends, "Eat a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products with reduced saturated and total fat content." We have plenty of heart-healthy diet resources to help you as you get started. 
  • Exercise regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, along with two days of resistance training to maintain strength and muscle. "Daily exercise can help to reduce stress and blood pressure levels, helping to improve heart health. In addition, daily movement improves circulation, which directly benefits the brain," says Palinski-Wade. And be sure to find a type of movement that you actually enjoy, it'll make it easier to stick with it for the long haul. 
  • Avoid smoking. Several studies have linked tobacco use to an increased risk of many devastating diseases, including heart disease, cancer and dementia. Talk to your health care team for resources to help with quitting if you do smoke. 
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night to promote muscle recovery, boost brain function and reduce chronic disease risk. We know that can be easier said than done, but these expert tips can help optimize your routine and catch more zzz's. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. This can mean different things for everyone since every body is different, and it can be hard to know where to start if you want to lose weight. Small steps towards a healthy lifestyle can take you a long way over time. 
  • Keep cholesterol in check by reducing LDL cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease and dementia. We have a low cholesterol diet plan for beginners and plenty of resources perfect to help you get started. 
  • Manage blood sugar. Over time, consistent blood sugar spikes can damage your heart, brain, kidneys, eyes and nerves, and increase your risk for diabetes. Wagner says, "Studies have suggested that worse glycemic control is associated with greater cognitive decline in patients with diabetes. Therefore, blood glucose control and heart-healthy lifestyle habits are critical for preserving heart and brain health in people with diabetes." There are several healthy habits that can help keep your blood sugar more consistent, from your diet to exercise and even drinking more water. 
  • Control blood pressure by keeping it within a healthy range and managing stress. High blood pressure is considered 130-139 mm Hg systolic pressure (the top number in a reading) or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic pressure (bottom number).

In addition to AHA's recommendations, Palinski-Wade recommends adding more fiber to your diet. "To add more fiber to your diet, include foods such as whole fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains," advises Palinski-Wade. "These foods will help lower LDL cholesterol while promoting blood sugar balance and reduced visceral fat levels—all factors that will improve heart and brain health."

The Bottom Line

A new study found that high levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of all-cause dementia, especially among people with diabetes. However, adopting healthy lifestyle habits and eating a heart-healthy diet abundant in fiber can help lower LDL cholesterol, thereby protecting your body's most vital organs and adding more healthy years to your life.