That high cholesterol levels, specifically elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, can lead to a number of cardiovascular issues is well-known. So well-known that many assume, wrongly, that all cholesterol is bad without realising that sufficient high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels are actually a sign of good health, especially heart health.
Another assumption people often make is that having high LDL cholesterol at a young age won’t be that harmful to heart health if you change your lifestyle and maintain good cholesterol levels for the rest of your life.
A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests otherwise. It states that the damage done to the arteries of the cardiovascular system early in life – even during late teens and the 20s – due to high LDL levels are often irreversible and cumulative, so much so that it increases the risk of developing heart disease during middle age.
Repercussions of having high LDL at a young age
The data for this study was gathered from the ongoing Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) research. This large study recruited 4,958 participants aged 18 to 30 years between 1985-1986 and followed their individual health status, and environmental or other factors that affected it, to understand what contributes to the development of heart disease during and after midlife. Their cholesterol levels and other biomarkers were studied to understand the incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke, transient ischemic attack, heart failure, cardiac revascularisation, peripheral arterial disease or death due to cardiovascular reasons.
The researchers analysed the data they had using the Kaplan-Meier estimator modeling method and found that 275 of the participants had an incident cardiovascular disease event after the age of 40 years. These cardiovascular issues showed up even if the participants had higher LDL levels when they were much younger and had managed to get their LDL levels down to a healthy standard by the time they were in their late 30s.
A greater call for early intervention
Researchers also found that the damage done to the arteries at a younger age, say teenage years, due to higher levels of LDL may be irreversible. Cumulative exposure to this damage can create the same risks of cardiovascular disease as those faced by a person who has high cholesterol at the age of 40 years. This clearly indicates that a young person with high cholesterol is likely to have greater risks of suffering a major cardiovascular event around midlife than somebody who develops cholesterol issues in midlife itself.
The researchers behind this study state that their findings support the need for regular cholesterol screenings beginning at a younger age than previously recommended so that this cumulative exposure time can be limited. This is also supported by the fact that obesity is a greater epidemic to deal with now than it was before and young adults are at a higher risk of obesity and cholesterol-related diseases. Lifestyle measures that help lower LDL cholesterol levels should, in fact, be taught to children during their teenage years itself – including regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body mass index and following a healthy, balanced diet which is low in saturated and trans fats.
For more information, read our article on High cholesterol.
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