What Is HDL Cholesterol and Why Do We Need It? This Good Cholesterol Helps Protect from Cognitive Decline

What-Is-HDL-Cholesterol-and-Why-Do-We-Need-ItPast generations believed that all cholesterol was bad. Now most of us know that there is both good cholesterol (HDL), and bad (LDL). Instead of total cholesterol scores being the true measure of heart disease risk, it is more the ratio of good and bad cholesterol that is important. You might be wondering, what is HDL cholesterol, and why exactly is it good to have a lot of it? HDL cholesterol doesn’t just help lower your risk for heart disease; it also can protect against cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease as well.

What is HDL cholesterol?

HDL (high density lipoprotein) is one of the five types of lipoproteins, which are compounds that transport fat within the body. HDL differs from LDL (low density lipoprotein), in that it is smaller and it carries fats away from cells, not to them. One of the main functions of HDL cholesterol is to remove excess cholesterol from cells and transport it to the liver where it is disposed of. It helps removes fats from the body and prevents clogging of the arteries with cholesterol.[1] HDL cholesterol is also an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and more.[2]

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HDL protects your heart

While high LDL cholesterol levels can hurt your heart, high HDL levels protect your heart. As mentioned above, HDL cholesterol clears arteries of excess cholesterol, which helps prevent atherosclerosis.[1] High levels of HDL are associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular diseases and a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality, while low HDL cholesterol raises your risk.[1,2]

HDL protects your brain, too

You may be surprised to learn that HDL levels can influence your brain and cognitive function, as well. In one study, researchers found that higher levels of HDL were positively associated with multiple measures of cognitive performance in people over 60 years of age, suggesting that HDL positively influences general cognitive performance.[1]

HDL is important for memory, specifically. Researchers studied HDL levels and memory in adults 55 to 61 years old. Those with lower HDL cholesterol levels showed increased signs of memory deficit. At a five-year follow up, those people who had further decreases in HDL cholesterol also showed an accompanying decline in memory.[3]

Other studies have also found that HDL levels are associated with dementia, with low levels of HDL raising your risk.[4,5] A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported lower levels of HDL in patients with Alzheimer’s disease compared to those without the disease.[6]

Proper balance of HDL may also be important for other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.[4] Low HDL has been associated with decreased brain volume in areas vulnerable to neurodegeneration.[1] HDL is critical for proper formation and maintenance of brain synapses, and it can also influence the formation of amyloid plaques, a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.[3]

Raise your HDL cholesterol

Increasing your HDL cholesterol to the healthy range should be a top priority; if you don’t have enough of it, you may be putting yourself at risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. The optimal level of HDL cholesterol is above 50. Simple, natural solutions can help you to raise your HDL cholesterol. Taking niacin, exercising regularly, eating more onions, or taking a bergamot supplement are just a few strategies.

Share your experience

What tips do you have for raising HDL cholesterol? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Share your experience in the comments section below.


[1] Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2014 Nov;20(10):961-70.

[2] J Lipid Res. 2014 Feb;55(2):168-79.

[3] Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2008 Aug;28(8):1556-62.

[4] Cardiovasc Res. 2014 Aug 1;103(3):405-13.

[5] J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2010 May;65(5):559-64.

[6] J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;40(2):399-408.

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