Adults who are apparently healthy but have high cholesterol should be given statins because they are still in greater danger from heart attacks and strokes, research suggests.
Supposedly low-risk individuals with high cholesterol at 42 were at significantly greater risk of dying of cardiovascular disease over the next 30 years, a study found.
Even those with only slightly raised levels were up to 40 per cent more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke over the next three decades, the study found. This increased to around 80 per cent for those with high or very high cholesterol, according to findings published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.
It is likely to reignite the debate over whether more of the cholesterol-busting drugs should be dished out to people – regardless of age – just in case they have heart problems in later life.
Experts agree that for those who already have a high heart risk, particularly those who have had a heart attack or a stroke, statins are proven lifesavers, slashing the chance of a second attack. But many doctors are uneasy with what they view as the problem of ‘over-medicalising’ the middle aged.
Previous studies have typically focused on individuals deemed at moderate or high risk of cardiovascular disease, such as those with a family history or those who have already had an attack.
Instead, researchers wanted to test if high cholesterol could threaten those otherwise considered at ‘low risk’ of a heart attack or stroke in the next ten years. They tracked more than 36,000 relatively young, healthy individuals in the US over a period of 27 years.
Of the group, which was 72 per cent men, with an average age of 42, there were 1,086 deaths from cardiovascular disease, such as stroke, and 598 coronary heart disease deaths.
Low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol is a type of cholesterol that contributes to clogged arteries which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. They found those with moderate to slightly high levels of LDL had a 30 to 40 per cent higher risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.
This increased to 70 to 90 per cent for those with high or very high cholesterol.
Researchers suggest adults should try to lower elevated cholesterol first through lifestyle changes, or in certain cases, medication.
Lead author Shuaib Abdullah, from the University of Texas, said: ‘Our study demonstrates that having a low ten-year estimated cardiovascular disease risk does not eliminate the risk posed by elevated LDL over the course of a lifetime. Limiting saturated fat intake, maintaining a healthy weight, discontinuing tobacco use, and increasing aerobic exercise should apply to everyone.’
Cardiovascular disease is Britain’s biggest killer, causing 155,000 deaths each year. Every three minutes someone in the UK has a heart attack.
Statins are thought to save 7,000 lives in Britain a year, especially among those who have had heart attacks.
Reducing saturated and trans fats in the diet, keeping a healthy body weight, and exercising often are all known to lower levels of LDL cholesterol. When lifestyle changes are not deemed sufficient, statins are used to reduce the liver’s production of LDL.
Because the body needs cholesterol for other tasks, the liver instead takes cholesterol from the bloodstream, lowering levels.
Robert Eckel of the American Heart Association, said: ‘This research highlights the need to educate those of any age on the risks of elevated cholesterol, and ways to keep cholesterol at a healthy level throughout life.’