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High cholesterol at young ages raises heart risk

Moderately elevated cholesterol levels in young people may suggest a higher risk of developing coronary artery calcium and atherosclerosis later in life, according to a new study released Aug 2 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study found 44 percent of the participants in their 20s and 30s with an average low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol greater than 160 mg/dL had calcification in their arteries 20 years later.

In comparison, of those who had normal levels of LDL cholesterol lower than 70 mg/dL, only nine percent had calcification, which leads to the build-up of artery plaque.

For the study, Mark J. Pletcher, MD, MPH from the University of California - San Francisco and colleagues followed 3258 men and women aged 18 to 30 for two decades. 

Blood samples were repeatedly collected and analyzed to measure low- and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides, according to a press release by the University, which does not say how many times the measurements had been repeated.

At the end of the study, CT scans were used to measure atherosclerosis or blockage of the coronary artery from cholesterol and plaque.

The researchers found that even fairly low levels of LDL cholesterol, that is, 100 to 129 mg/dL, were linked with a significantly higher risk of atherosclerosis.

A health observer suggested that the association between LDL cholesterol levels and risk of atherosclerosis was not strong enough to demonstrate that LDL plays a major role in the heart risk.

Previous studies have suggested that calcium is more strongly associated with cardiovascular risk and cholesterol levels are not good predictors for the heart risk even though it is believed to be a risk factor for heart disease.

The UCSF press release does not say if calcium play a role in the risk. But critics cited studies saying that artery plaque contains about 3 percent of cholesterol and 50 percent of calcium.

Jimmy Downs