A new study of more than 16,000 Hispanic adults finds that almost half are unaware they have high cholesterol levels – a major risk factor for heart disease. What is more, less than a third of those who are aware of their high cholesterol levels receive treatment.

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While around 45% of Hispanics have high cholesterol, almost half of them are unaware of it.

Lead study author Dr. Carlos J. Rodriguez, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston Salem, NC, and colleagues publish their findings in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, killing around 610,000 people every year. Of these deaths, more than 20% occur among Hispanics.

High cholesterol – specifically, high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – is a primary risk factor for heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with high LDL cholesterol are twice as likely to develop heart disease than those with low levels.

For their study, Dr. Rodriguez and colleagues set out to assess awareness and management of high cholesterol among the Hispanic population – an ethnic group they note is one of the fastest growing in the US, with more than 52 million currently living in the country.

The team analyzed data of 16,415 Hispanics aged 18-75 who were a part of the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos.

Around 45% of Hispanics are estimated to have high cholesterol levels, according to the researchers. They found that 49.3% of study participants with high cholesterol, however, did not know they were affected.

Hispanics who were born in the US were more likely to be unaware of their high cholesterol levels than foreign-born Hispanics. However, awareness, treatment and control of high cholesterol increased the longer an individual had lived in the US.

Obese Hispanics and those with diabetes or high blood pressure – all of which are risk factors for heart disease – were more likely to be aware of their high cholesterol levels than those without these conditions.

Of participants who were aware of their high cholesterol, only 29.3% received treatment to lower it, the researchers found.

Hispanic women were more likely than Hispanic men to have high cholesterol, though men were less likely than women to receive treatment for it.

Younger Hispanics, women, those without health insurance, Hispanics with lower income and those with more recent US residency who were aware of their high cholesterol were least likely to have it under control.

Dr. Rodriguez notes that the lack of awareness, treatment and control of high cholesterol identified in this study is surprising. “That needs to change since awareness is the first step in prevention,” he adds.

Dr. Clyde W. Yancy, former president of the American Heart Association (AHA) and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, says these findings indicate that the AHA’s goal to improve the heart health of all Americans by 2020 needs to broaden. He adds:

We cannot rest on our triumphs as nearly 50% of those Latino Americans with high cholesterol are unaware of the presence of this risk factor for heart disease and thus remain exposed to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.

We should consider this as an unacceptable burden of risk and consider public health policies, community awareness and a redoubled focus on prevention in all communities at risk.”

In March, Medical News Today reported on a study revealing how a new cholesterol-lowering drug could halve the risk of heart attack and stroke.