Young and Healthy? Watch the Cholesterol

Young adults out there, take note: The occasional Big Mac, slice of pizza or ice cream cookie binge may be fine — but you’d be wise not to make a habit out of it.

Consistently high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol throughout early adulthood (which is what you’ll get if you keep eating junk food every day) can do more harm to your future health than to your current figure, according to a new study. They’re a leading risk factor for coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco examined the extent to which bad cholesterol profiles in early adulthood are linked to later development of heart disease. They analyzed data from 3,258 men and women who have been tracked by the CARDIA, or Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults, study for the last 20 years and were ages 18 to 30 at the start of the study.

The researchers found that participants with histories of high levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol were 5 1/2 times as likely to have a buildup of calcium in their coronary arteries (an early indicator of heart disease) than those who had optimal LDL cholesterol levels, defined as less than 1.81 millimoles per liter.

Rates of coronary calcium buildup were also higher in those who had suboptimal levels of the “good” cholesterol, high density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, although this association was weaker.

The study’s message? You may feel immortal when you’re young, but bad habits even then could come back to bite when you’re older.

“How much cholesterol you have early on matters a lot later in life,” said lead author of the study, Dr. Mark Pletcher, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco. “Whatever damage you do then will … increase your risk of heart disease later.”

It doesn’t help that the cholesterol-screening guidelines for young adults are confusing. Two screening guidelines exist with conflicting recommendations. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends all adults be screened every five years after they turn 20, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening only young adults who already have heart disease or its risk factors.

A study published in the July-August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine found that fewer than 50 percent of the 2,587 young adults in that report had been screened within the last five years, even though more than two-thirds of the sample had heart disease or related conditions, such as diabetes, and 38 percent had one or more risk factors for heart disease.

Part of the reason young adults are under-screened is the confusion about the guidelines, but it’s also partly due to young adults’ attitudes.


–Published in The Los Angeles Times on August 27, 2010–

“Young people don’t pay much attention to their health — how they eat, being physically active, etc. — because it doesn’t come to mind,” Pletcher said.

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