AUG 21, 2018 6:15 AM PDT

High Cholesterol in the Young and Healthy Linked to Heart Disease

WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Williams

An estimated 28.5 million Americans have cholesterol levels of 240 mg/dL or higher, putting them in the high cholesterol range. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease that can be easily controlled. Previous studies have focused on individuals with high cholesterol that are also at moderate or high risk for heart disease. But a recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation looks at associations between cholesterol levels and heart disease in young, healthy individuals.

Cholesterol Chemical Structure

Cholesterol is a waxy substance attached to proteins, combined called a lipoprotein, that travels through your bloodstream. There are two types of lipoprotein, low-density known as “bad” cholesterol and high-density known as “good” cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) transports cholesterol through the body and can build up in the walls of your arteries causing them to harden and narrow, while high-density lipoprotein (HDL) picks up excess cholesterol to take back to the liver. Factors that increase the risk for high cholesterol are poor diet, obesity, low levels of exercise, smoking and diabetes with genetics also playing a potential role. When cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can reduce blood flow and form plaques leading to complications such as chest pain, heart, and stroke among other heart-related complications. Prevention of high cholesterol includes lifestyle changes such as a heart-healthy diet that is low-salt and heavy in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting animal fats and good fats. Maintaining a healthy weight and habits such as drinking in moderation, quitting smoking, and exercising most days for at least 30 minutes all help prevent and improve cholesterol levels.

Researchers on this study looked at both LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol in relation to cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease mortality. The study followed 36,375 young and relatively healthy participants, considered low-risk for cardiovascular disease, of the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study that were free of diabetes and cardiovascular disease for 27 years. The study found that LDL levels were independently associated with increased chances of dying from cardiovascular disease. Overall, not taking in to account other risk factors, those with LDL levels between 100-159 mg/dL had a 30-40% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, while those above 160 mg/dL had a 70-90% higher risk of cardiovascular death compared to those under 100 mg/dL.

“Our study demonstrates that having a low 10-year estimated cardiovascular disease risk does not eliminate the risk posed by elevated LDL over the course of a lifetime,” said lead study author Shuaib Abdullah, M.D., at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Veteran’s Affairs North Texas Healthcare System in Dallas, Texas. The study was done in collaboration with investigators from the Cooper Institute. “Those with low risk should pursue lifestyle interventions, such as diet and exercise, to achieve LDL levels as low as possible, preferably under 100 mg/dL. Limiting saturated fat intake, maintaining a healthy weight, discontinuing tobacco use, and increasing aerobic exercise should apply to everyone.”

To learn more about cholesterol watch the video below.

Sources: CirculationAmerican Heart Association, Mayo Clinic

About the Author
  • Caitlin holds a doctorate degree in Microbiology from the University of Georgia where she studied Mycoplasma pneumoniae and its glycan receptors. She received her Bachelor's in Biology from Virginia Tech (GO HOKIES!). She has a passion for science communication and STEM education with a goal to improve science literacy. She enjoys topics related to human health, with a particular soft spot for pathogens.
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