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Alzheimer's link to bad habits

21st April 2008

People in midlife are being warned of new research showing a link between heavy drinking, heavy smoking and high cholesterol levels and Alzheimer's disease in later life.

Old Woman 400

Two studies presented to the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Chicago found a link between behaviour in ones 40s and the development of dementia decades later.

One study of 938 people 60 and older diagnosed with possible or probable Alzheimer's found an earlier onset for the disease for people who had consumed more than two drinks a day in their middle years, and for people who smoked a pack of cigarettes or more a day.

Ranjan Duara, director of the Mount Sinai Medical Center Wien Center for Alzheimer's Disease in Miami Beach, Florida said experts now believe that Alzheimer's begins to build up over many years before symptoms become noticeable.

He said people who started with a good cognitive reserve, who remained active mentally, were able to compensate for the pathology of the brain for a much longer period of time than those who did not.

Heavy drinkers developed Alzheimer's 4.8 years earlier than the control group, whereas the heavy smokers - 20% of the people in the study- developed the disease on average 2.3 years earlier than non-heavy smokers or non-smokers.

Both smoking and drinking can have a direct physical effect on the brain, damaging cells and also the connections between cells.

Duara said that any amount of smoking increased the risk of heart attack, stroke and other medical problems. However, it was harder to define the potentially damaging effects of alcohol, with different views in different cultures about exactly what constitutes a heavy drinker.

He suggested that more than two drinks a day was 'probably not a good idea', as the health benefits of small amounts of alcohol do not increase, the more alcohol is consumed.

Meanwhile, a study of 9,752 California men and women has found a link between high cholesterol in middle age and Alzheimer's several decades later.

Rachel Whitmer, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente division of research in Oakland, said that people with total cholesterol levels between 249 and 500 milligrams were one-and-a-half times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those with cholesterol levels less than 198 milligrams.

People with total cholesterol levels of 221 to 248 milligrams were more than one-and-a-quarter times more likely to develop the disease.

She said researchers had concluded that cholesterol levels in midlife were a risk factor for Alzheimer's later in life. Data collected back in the 1960s and 1970s, however, made no distinction between "bad" LDL cholesterol and "good" HDL cholesterol.

Whitmer said people in midlife should be thinking about their risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, adding that what was good for the heart was also good for the brain.

She called for further research on the topic.


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