Health Watch -- Cholesterol and Alzheimer's Disease

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A treatment that protects against heart disease could also help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

We know that cholesterol is bad for your heart. But it's also bad for your brain. Cholesterol build-up in arteries can cause clogs that lead to heart attacks or strokes. When cholesterol builds up in the brain, it causes amyloid plaques, which are waxy buildups that harm brain cells. These plaques are one sign of Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have found that the same drugs that lower cholesterol levels for preventing heart disease also lower cholesterol levels in the brain.

The researchers tested a group of patients who had Alzheimer's disease but who didn't have heart or cholesterol problems. Some of these patients took cholesterol-lowering drugs from the statin family. Others took extended-release niacin, which also helps lower cholesterol.

While the liver processes dietary cholesterol and extracts it in bile, the brain converts excess cholesterol into another substance that then goes into the bloodstream. Researchers measured levels of this substance and found that it decreased by at least 20 percent in the patients taking statin drugs and at least 10 percent in those taking niacin. Researchers noted that the patients didn't have bad side effects from the drugs.

Now that they've found that the drugs will lower brain cholesterol, the next step is to find out if they will improve the way patients with Alzheimer's disease function.