MAR 05, 2016 10:51 AM PST

Lifestyle Changes Led to Decrease in Cardiac Death

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet
High cholesterol levels lead to higher risk of heart attack
This is Mats Eliasson, professor at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine as well as doctor at Sunderby Hospital in Luleå in northern Sweden. Your body needs cholesterol. Cholesterol plays a vital role in the synthesis of steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile, a substance that helps you digest food. Your body creates the amount of cholesterol it needs to carry out these functions, but cholesterol can also be found in the foods we eat. When a person has too much cholesterol, it builds up on the walls of their arteries and puts them at risk for heart attack and stroke.

Northern Sweden has managed to decrease their cholesterol levels over the last 20 years. According to new research, two-thirds of the decrease can be credited to a change in lifestyle. 

The study took place from 1994 to 2014. At the beginning of the study, obese people and women without a college education suffered from high cholesterol levels. In addition, individuals at high risk for heart attacks had at least as high cholesterol as healthy individuals. 

Over the next two decades, the average level of cholesterol levels in the population decreased from 6.2 mmol/L to 5.5 mmol/L. The lowered cholesterol may be responsible for the overall decrease of people falling ill and people dying in heart attacks. 

The decrease was “most noticeable among those who profit the most from it,” said statistician Marie Eriksson, co-author of the study. Specifically, the decrease was particularly pronounced in older people, non-college educated women, and people at high risk for cardiovascular disease. The largest decrease was found in people at high risk for cardiovascular disease who had been treated for a previous heart attack or stroke, high blood pressure, and/or diabetes. This “indicates that the efforts on primary and secondary preventions in health care centers and heart clinics have contributed successfully,” Eriksson said. 

The high cholesterol levels completely disappeared in women without a college education and obese individuals. "Seeing that women without university education now have the same low cholesterol levels or that obese persons have equally good levels as normal-weight persons confirms that health care is now offered at the same terms," Eriksson said.

Cholesterol lowering drugs, called statins, are prescribed more often now than two decades ago. In 2014, they were used by 14 percent of the northern Sweden population. A third of the decreased cholesterol levels are credited to statins. The other two-thirds of "the decreased cholesterol, in the population of Norrbotten and Västerbotten counties in northern Sweden, [are] most likely [due to] a change in lifestyle," said Mats Eliasson, professor at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine. The lifestyle changes include a reduced fat intake and an increased fiber intake from fruit, vegetables, and grains.  

While cardiac death is down, cardiovascular disease is still the most common cause of death in Sweden. Therefore, “there is still room for improvement, both by continuously encouraging an improved lifestyle and through the use of medical drugs,” Eriksson said. ”The constantly decreasing cholesterol levels are pointing towards a continuous reduction in cardiovascular disease.”

The study was published on March 3, 2016, in the European Heart Journal

Sources: Umeå University press release via EurekAlert!, European Heart Journal study
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to
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