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Experts say diet and physical activity can help slow symptoms of dementia. Westend61/Getty Images
  • New research reports that people with higher levels of triglycerides – a type of fat – carried a lower risk of dementia and slower cognitive decline if they are diagnosed with dementia.
  • Researchers noted that while they found a link, their findings do not prove a connection between triglyceride levels and dementia, nor should triglyceride levels be used as a screening tool.
  • Experts say early diagnosis and intervention can help because staying mentally sharp and physically healthy can help slow cognitive decline.

Researchers say they may have found a link between a type of fat in the body and dementia – a connection that could help explain the rate of cognitive decline in people with the condition.

Researchers published their findings, along with an accompanying editorial, today in the medical journal Neurology, a publication from the American Academy of Neurology.

The study looked at data from more than 18,000 people with an average age of 75 and no prior diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia. Over a 6-year and 12-year follow-up periods, researchers analyzed cholesterol and levels of triglyceride (the most common type of fat in the body).

Among study participants, 823 developed dementia during the first 6 years and 2,778 had been diagnosed with the condition after 12 years.

The researchers said the final data showed that higher levels of triglycerides were associated with a slower cognitive decline in participants who developed dementia.

They added that higher triglyceride levels may also be associated with a lower risk of developing dementia in the first place, although it could not be proven that these higher levels prevent dementia.

“Our findings were a surprise to us,” Dr. Zhen Zhou, a study author and a chronic disease and aging research fellow at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, told Medical News Today.

“It’s important to highlight that our study focused only on older adults and the triglyceride levels we analyzed were from their later years, not middle age,” Zhou added. “In older individuals, these levels are prone to fluctuation and were affected by nutritional status and underlying disease, whereas mid-life measurements are more tied to cardiovascular risk.”

Zhou noted that high triglyceride levels do carry risk factors of their own, including an elevated risk for serious conditions like pancreatitis and heart disease.

The study didn’t delve into the exact mechanisms at play between triglycerides and cognitive capacity, but the link may lie in the fact that triglycerides make up a large portion of the dietary fats that fuel the brain.

Zhou said that further in-depth studies could determine whether there’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship between triglycerides and dementia or cognitive decline.

“Should there be a link, it’s imperative to understand the underlying biological mechanisms, which will further inform potential preventive and treatment strategies,” she said. “If no direct link exists, studies should explore other contributing factors, such as lifestyle, medical conditions or genetics. Could it be that factors like malnutrition lead to both low triglycerides and a higher dementia risk? These are questions future research should address.”

As Zhou points out, this research could help guide future studies and advance our understanding of the mechanisms at play when it comes to dementia – but cautioned against using triglyceride levels as a screening tool for dementia.

“Our focus was primarily on understanding the association [between triglycerides and dementia],” she said.

Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to a number of types of cognitive decline, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are nearly 6 million adults in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias and this number could rise to 14 million by 2060.

Because of these numbers, it’s quite common for people to have firsthand experience with this condition – whether it affects a parent, friend, or loved one.

There is no cure on the horizon for dementia, as it progresses over time. But with medical consultation and support, experts say it’s possible to diagnose and then manage it.

Dr. Jason Krellman, an associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University in New York, explained to Medical News Today that while forgetfulness is common with aging, dementia refers to more severe forms of cognitive impairment that prevent a person from doing their day-to-day activities.

“Forgetting minor details and being slower to remember names can be very common in normal aging,” Krellman said. “Of course, people do not go from a state of complete cognitive health to dementia overnight. In fact, the process often takes several years. Therefore, if someone and/or people close to them are concerned that their cognitive lapses are more than just an occasional, explainable nuisance, they should talk to their doctor, who will help them decide whether going to see a specialist is indicated.”

If an aging person is diagnosed with dementia, they’ll need plenty of help and support from their loved ones as their disease progresses.

Experts say early diagnosis is critical, as medications to slow its progression are most effective during this period.

Dr. Theodore Strange, the vice chair of primary care at Northwell Health and vice president of medical operations at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Medical News Today that, following diagnosis, it’s important for a person to stay physically and mentally healthy.

“I think activity, being around people in programs where you’re not isolated, is key,” explained Strange. “Proper nutrition, ensuring no alcohol, no smoking, these are the things that I recommend.”

“Think of it like exercising the brain: do crossword puzzles, play memory games, look at old pictures, and continually orient the patient,” he advised.

Strange also said that monitoring vitamin deficiency and thyroid function can help keep people with dementia on the best possible track.

“We’re constantly looking to slow the progression down, and hopefully one day there will be the research that comes out to help us arrest it,” he said. “I think healthy lifestyle is probably the most important thing we can do to continue to offset the issues related to dementia.”