Older Americans’ cholesterol levels have declined significantly in recent years, but younger adults may not be faring as well in the battle against artery-clogging cholesterol.

A new study shows that average total cholesterol levels among men aged 60 to 74 years have decreased by 28 mg/dL from 232 mg/dL to 204 mg/dL between the early 1960s and early 1990s. Women aged 50 to 74 experienced an even greater decline of 40 mg/dL from 256 mg/dL to 216 mg/dL during the same time period.

From 1988 to 2002 the average level of LDL “bad” cholesterol also decreased significantly in the same older age groups of men and women.

Meanwhile, total and LDL cholesterol levels among younger men and women in their 20s have not changed as substantially.

Elevated total and LDL cholesterol, and low HDL “good” cholesterol levels are risk factors for hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and heart disease.

Researchers credit much of the decline in cholesterol levels among older adults to the increasing use of cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as statins. In the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cholesterol-lowering drugs prescribed among older adults, however recent dietary surveys show only a small change in the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in Americans’ diets.

Total Cholesterol Levels Get Lower

In the study, which appears in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers compared cholesterol levels in several national surveys from 1960 to 2002.

The results showed that the average total cholesterol levels overall dropped from 222 mg/dL to 203 mg/dL among adults aged 20 to 74 from 1960 to 2002.

During this time period, significant declines in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels were achieved among both sexes and all age groups, except among adults aged 20 to 29.

Other findings of the study include:

—HDL “good” cholesterol levels remained relatively unchanged among men and women from 1976-2002.

—Women’s declines in total cholesterol levels were consistently greater then men’s throughout the study period.

—The age-adjusted percentage of adults 20 years and over with total cholesterol 240 mg/dL and over decreased from 20 to 17 percent from 1988 to 2002.

Researchers say the continued lowering of total and LDL cholesterol levels in older adults is a positive trend. Recent studies suggest that a 1 percent decrease in LDL cholesterol translates into a 1 percent decrease in the relative risk for heart disease.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCE: Carroll, M. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct. 12, 2005; vol 294: pp 1773-1781.