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More Americans Know Their Cholesterol Levels

Study finds 7 in 10 had it checked

FRIDAY, Sept. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- September is National Cholesterol Education Month, and this year's theme is "Know your cholesterol numbers; know your risk." And it seems more Americans do.

More than 70 percent of Americans said their doctor tested them for high cholesterol within the last five years, up modestly from 67 percent in 1991, says a 1999 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly 29 percent reported getting a result that was too high. The findings suggest that about 9 percent of Americans have undiagnosed high cholesterol.

Reining in high cholesterol, either through diet, exercise or drugs, can reduce the odds of heart attack and heart-related death by roughly 25 percent, experts say. Treatment also can decrease the need for bypass surgery, angioplasty and other heart procedures, and lowers the risk of death from non-heart causes.

Men whose total cholesterol count -- a figure which includes both "good" and "bad" forms of the fat -- exceeds 240 before their 40th birthday have more than triple the risk of dying from coronary heart disease than those whose levels fall below that cutoff. And the risk of other fatal cardiovascular disease is two to three times higher for those with the highest numbers.

Last spring, health officials released new guidelines calling for much more aggressive treatment of high cholesterol with drugs called statins that lower the blood fat.

The new guidelines say all adults over age 20 should have a cholesterol screening every five years. Total cholesterol should add up to less than 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood, and scores between 200 and 239 are considered borderline, says the American Heart Association. Excess LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) can lead to clots in the arteries that feed the heart, but high HDL is protective and helps ferry fatty molecules away from the heart.

The new recommendations would triple the number of patients eligible for statins to about 36 million, experts say.

The latest figures, which appear in today's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, come from a phone survey of more than 412,000 American adults over age 20 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

While the number of adults who reported having a cholesterol test in the last five years increased nationwide, so, too, did the number who said that their cholesterol was too high, officials say. High cholesterol was more common with advancing age. About 18 percent of people 20 to 44 were told they had too much in their blood, as were nearly 43 percent of those 65 or older.

Awareness of cholesterol testing increased among minority groups, including blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, and among both men and women, officials say. The rise could be due to a public promotions for cholesterol screening, as well as more counseling by doctors about the importance of the test, officials say.

Kurt Greenlund, a CDC epidemiologist who helped prepare the report, says the findings are mixed. It's good news that "more people are aware of cholesterol screening and have the opportunity to take action to control it, but "it's bad news in that we have heart disease as the number-one killer in America and cholesterol is a major factor in heart disease," Greenlund says.

Heart disease takes some 450,000 lives a year in this country, and the combination of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, like stroke, account for 950,000 deaths annually, Greenlund says.

The latest study relied on self reporting and didn't look at actual cholesterol tests. The last major survey found that total cholesterol levels for American adults dropped between 1988 and 1994, Greenlund says.

What To Do

If you're 20 or older, and you haven't had a cholesterol test, talk with your doctor.

To learn more about high cholesterol and how to keep it in check, visit the American Heart Association.

You can also try HeartInfo or the CDC.

SOURCES: Interview with Kurt Greenlund, Ph.D., epidemiologist, CDC, Atlanta; Sept. 7, 2001, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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