Scientists have claimed that adults between the ages of 35 and 55 with even slightly high cholesterol are at risk of facing heart disease later in life. Lead author Ann Marie Navar-Boggan at the Duke Clinical Research Institute likens the cumulative effects of elevated cholesterol to the long-term impacts of smoking, with every decade of high cholesterol increasing their chances of heart disease by 39 percent. Navar-Boggan said that what we were doing to our blood vessels in our 20s, 30s and 40s was laying the foundation for disease that would present itself later in our lives.

For the study, Navar-Boggan and colleagues at Duke, Boston University and McGill University examined data on 1,478 adults who were free of heart disease at age 55 who were part of the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948. Researchers calculated the length of time each participant had high cholesterol by age 55 and they were followed for up to 20 years to see how cholesterol levels affected their risk of heart disease.

Elevated cholesterol for this study was defined as non-HDL cholesterol of 160 mg/dL or higher. Researchers found similar results for patients with LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol” of 130 mg/dL or higher. At age 55, nearly 40 percent of participants had at least 10 years of exposure to high cholesterol. Over the next 15 years, their risk of heart disease was 16.5 percent, nearly four times the rate of 4.4 percent seen among those without high cholesterol. Each decade of high cholesterol raised the risk of heart disease by 39 percent, suggesting that the cumulative effects of even mild or moderate elevations in cholesterol pose a significant risk to heart health.

What was surprising, Navar-Boggan said, is that “the effect is perhaps even stronger among adults who are otherwise healthy. So even if you control everything else in your life-you don’t smoke, your blood pressure and weight are normal, and you don’t have diabetes-having elevated cholesterol over many years can still cause problems in the long run.” The researchers also noted that most study participants with elevated cholesterol early in adulthood wouldn’t have met the criteria for treatment with statins, a class of medication that lowers blood cholesterol, under current guidelines endorsed by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology.

The study results suggest that otherwise healthy adults from age 35 to 55 may be a group of people who should consider cholesterol control sooner, Navar-Boggan said.

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