High levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol can increase a person's risk of cardiovascular disease. People may worry more about their cholesterol levels when they age, but new research suggests that they should take preventive action much earlier.
A new study — the findings of which appear in the journal Circulation — suggests that people with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol early in life may experience an increased lifetime risk of death related to cardiovascular disease (CVD).
LDL cholesterol can increase cardiovascular risk at high levels because it leads to lipid buildup in the arteries, which can affect the blood flow to and from the heart.
In the new study, which was of an observational nature, the scientists considered the links between LDL cholesterol levels, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels, and the risk of premature death related to CVD and coronary heart disease (CHD).
Specifically, the researchers wanted to find out whether individuals currently considered at low risk of CVD or CHD for the coming 10 years may benefit from learning about their cholesterol levels earlier in life and keeping them in check so as to prevent the development of complications.
"High cholesterol at younger ages means there will be a greater burden of cardiovascular disease as these individuals age. This research highlights the need to educate Americans of any age on the risks of elevated cholesterol, and ways to keep cholesterol at a healthy level throughout life."
Dr. Robert Eckel, the former president of the American Heart Association (AHA)
Early LDL cholesterol tied to death risk
While usually, studies about cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk recruit participants who are at moderate to high risk of developing cardiovascular conditions, the new research focused on younger and mostly healthy individuals.
For this study, the researchers recruited 36,375 participants — of which 72 percent were men — aged 42, on average, via the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. All the participants were free of both diabetes and CVD at baseline, and the investigators followed their health progression for a period of 27 years.
The researchers revealed that, for people who were otherwise at low risk of CVD, high LDL levels were independently associated with a heightened risk of CVD-related death.
Specifically, when compared with participants with normal LDL levels (under 100 milligrams per deciliter), those with high LDL levels (between 100–159 milligrams per deciliter) had a 30–40 percent higher likelihood of experiencing premature death due to CVD.
Also, compared with participants who displayed normal LDL readings, those with LDL cholesterol levels of 160 milligrams per deciliter or higher had a 70–90 percent higher risk of CVD-related death.
In total, within the study cohort, there were 1,086 CVD-related deaths and 598 deaths related to CHD.
"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," says lead study author Dr. Shuaib Abdullah, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"Those with low risk should pursue lifestyle interventions, such as diet and exercise, to achieve LDLs levels as low as possible, preferably under 100 [milligrams per deciliter]," Dr. Abdullah advises, adding, "Limiting saturated fat intake, maintaining a healthy weight, discontinuing tobacco use, and increasing aerobic exercise should apply to everyone."