Living decades with high cholesterol greatly increases the risk for heart disease, according to a recent study that bolsters a push by some doctors for regular cholesterol testing and perhaps early drug treatment of people in their 30s and 40s.
About 37% of young adults have never had their cholesterol checked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And when elevated cholesterol levels are found, doctors typically won’t prescribe a drug until patients are in their 50s or 60s. By then, significant damage from years of cholesterol buildup has been done, the new research indicates.
“If we wait until people are in their 50s and 60s to be thinking about high cholesterol, it is probably too late,” said Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, a cardiology fellow at Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, N.C., and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Circulation in January. The risk of developing heart disease increases by 39% for every 10 years a person lives with high cholesterol, the research found.
Heart disease can be prevented through healthier eating, more exercise and weight loss, though many patients find it difficult to make the necessary lifestyle changes. Although statins have been proved to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack, the safety and effectiveness of taking the drugs for several decades hasn’t been closely studied. In short-term studies, some people experience side effects to statins including muscle pains.
How far to go in tackling high cholesterol at an early age has been hotly debated among doctors. The latest guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology encourage doctors to counsel those patients to change their lifestyle, but not to take a cholesterol-lowering statin drug unless they have other risk factors, such as a family history of a heart attack at a relatively young age, said Neil Stone, a professor of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the guidelines.
“Would you really want to give them a statin when lifestyle could take care of the problem?” said Dr. Stone. “We believe in careful, thoughtful use of statins.”