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Could statins drive you ga-ga?
Cholesterol plays an important role in the formation and functioning of synapses in the brain
April 29, 2013 | By:
On his Body of Evidence blog, Jerome Burne rails against big pharma. In a post adapted from the blog, he asks if statins, by lowering brain cholesterol, could cause memory loss
Statins_Alzheimers_brain-620 Corbis-Science Photo Library

The brain contains more cholesterol than any other organ. Photo from Science Photo Library/Corbis

We all know that the side-effects and efficacy of statins should cause anyone who is prescribed them to pause. However, there is a statin risk that should be of much more concern: lowering your cholesterol may well raise your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.

How come? Well, drugs carry serious risks because of the way they work. A single molecule, such as cholesterol that is part of a complex interlocking system, can be blocked or boosted with a drug (statins).

Inevitably they do things you don’t want as well as the ones you do. And the more important the system you are blocking, the more likely the harm. That’s why statins could cause the sort of brain damage that shows up in Alzheimer’s.

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You may be familiar with the idea that cholesterol is involved in brain function, but maybe not just how important its role is. A review article in the European Journal of Internal Medicine last year makes it clear.

“The brain represents only two per cent of the body’s total mass, but contains 25 per cent of the total cholesterol,” reads an introductory paragraph. “Cholesterol is required everywhere in the brain as an antioxidant, an electrical insulator (in order to prevent ion leakage), as a structural scaffold for the neural network, and a functional component of all membranes.

“Cholesterol is utilised in the wrapping and synaptic delivery of the neurotransmitters. It also plays an important role in the formation and functioning of synapses in the brain.”

Personally, I’d want to know that my odds of benefiting from blocking something that vital were better than the 100-200:1 that is on offer from statins for primary prevention.

How cholesterol is used in the brain

The article goes on to describe a number of specific ways cholesterol is used in the brain.

It is directly involved in the action of a gene known as ApoE. A harmful variation – ApoE4 – is well known to raise your risk of both heart disease and Alzheimer’s .

So what does ApoE do? “It has an essential role in the delivery of fat, cholesterol, and antioxidants from the liver to all the cells of the body,” writes the author, Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist in the Computer Science and Artficial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, who has recently been turning her attention to biochemistry and medicine.

The ApoE4 variation causes brain problems because it doesn’t work so well and lowers the amount of cholesterol available to the hippocampus – the brain region crucial for memory.

More evidence for the harm from having too little cholesterol comes from research showing that Alzheimer’s patients have low levels of cholesterol in their spinal fluid, along with not enough lipoproteins, triglycerides and free fatty acids. Parkinson’s patients, who also suffer brain damage, have low levels of cholesterol in their blood.

There is still a lot more to be done to prove definitively that too little cholesterol damages the brain (along with too much insulin and glucose).

But avoiding these highly plausible risk factors is remarkably simple – and doesn’t involve adding new risks, the way drugs do.

It’s what I and my co-author Patrick Holford advocate in our book, The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing: make sure you have enough good fats and eat foods that don’t push up blood sugar.

It’s what Dr Seneff recommends too. “Simple dietary modification, towards fewer highly-processed carbohydrates and relatively more fats and cholesterol, is likely a protective measure against Alzheimer’s disease.”

That’s something worth remembering.

See the full article, Alzheimer’s: another reason to be sceptical about statins, on Jerome’s blog, Body of Evidence, where he tests contemporary medical dogma 

Read all Jerome’s articles for high50