WEDNESDAY, Sept. 10, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Researchers appear to have confirmed what doctors have long suspected: High cholesterol levels among people 40 and older translate into higher risks of heart disease throughout their lives.
In other words, the cholesterol-rich foods you eat today won't just spell trouble in the near future. High cholesterol levels, on average, can as much as double your lifetime risk of coronary disease, a new study found.
"We need to be much more aware and much more active in identifying risk factors in young people and intervening with them at an early stage, so their lifetime risks are lower," says study co-author Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
High levels of cholesterol in the blood contribute to coronary disease by creating blockages in arteries and vessels. In the worst-case scenarios, the blockages can cause heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
This new study marks the first time researchers compared cholesterol levels at younger ages to disease rates later in life, Lloyd-Jones says. "Most of the focus has been on what cholesterol levels portend within the next 10 years or so."
Lloyd-Jones and colleagues examined statistics from the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing study that began in 1948 and involves more than 10,000 people. "We can look at lifetime experiences at certain cholesterol levels and look at what the risk is for developing coronary disease," Lloyd-Jones says.
The findings appear in this week's issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
The researchers looked at people who took part in the main study from 1971-1996. Their cholesterol levels were measured at ages 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80.
The lifetime heart disease risks for those with healthy cholesterol levels (under 200) at age 40 were 30 percent for men and 15 percent for women.
But when cholesterol levels at age 40 rose to 200-239, the risk of coronary disease later in life jumped to 43 percent for men and 26 percent for women. For those with cholesterol levels of 240 or above, the levels skyrocketed, to 57 percent and 33 percent for men and women, respectively.
The findings aren't surprising, says Dr. Arthur Klatsky, a senior consultant in cardiology at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, Calif. But that doesn't mean the study is unimportant, he adds.
"It indicates that the earlier in life you begin to try to control this particular risk factor, the more benefit you're likely to gain," Klatsky says. "It's not a good idea to wait until you're in trouble. It's good for everybody to check cholesterol, and if it's high, to do something about it."