Certain type of fat in the blood may indicate Alzheimer's risk

High levels of a certain type of fat in the blood may increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study.

As part of the Women’s Health and Aging Study II, Mayo Clinic researchers tested participants’ blood levels of serum ceramides, a fat compound in the body that is associated with inflammation and cell death.  The researchers sorted the participants into three groups: high, middle and low lives of ceramides.

Ninety-nine women took part in the study, all between the ages of 70 and 79 and free of dementia at the study’s onset. Of the 99 participants, 27 went on to develop dementia and 18 were diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease during nine years of follow-up.  The results indicated the women with the highest levels of ceramides were 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than women with the lowest levels, while those in the middle category were eight times more likely to develop the disease than those in the low category.

“Our study identifies this biomarker as a potential new target for treating or preventing Alzheimer's disease,” Dr. Michelle Mielke, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said in a released statement.

According to Mielke, it is still uncertain whether ceramide is merely a warning sign or a driving force behind Alzheimer’s, but “both options are being looked at,” Mielke told Fox News.  “Based on our evidence and another study that found similar findings, it does look like high levels of ceramides do increase the risk of disease progression.”

High levels of ceramides have also been linked with hippocampal volume loss, as well as increases in beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, Mielke added.  Beta-amyloid and tau proteins are two other well-known biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and general cognitive decline.

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“Perhaps it’s kind of a vicious cycle,” Mielke said.  “A couple studies have shown increases in ceramides can lead to increases in beta-amyloid while a couple other studies have shown increases in beta-amyloid can lead to increases in ceramides.  More recently, we have found ceramide levels affect tau proteins.  It may be that the interaction between beta-amyloid and ceramides leads to further pathologies.”

Mielke said further studies need to be done before a clinical test can be developed using ceramide levels as an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.  The researchers are currently waiting to see if the results are replicated in an ongoing study involving 1,000 people over a period of 30 years.

However, “it certainly appears to be a robust predictor,” Mielke said.  “Potentially down the road it could be a treatment target – showing whether or not the disease is progressing, or whether or not a treatment is working.”

The study was published in the journal Neurology.