Slightly high cholesterol in mid-life 'risky for heart'
Having even slightly raised cholesterol in mid-life significantly increases a person's risk of heart disease, research reveals.
For every decade a person has even mildly elevated cholesterol between the ages of 35 and 55, their risk of heart disease could go up by nearly 40%, the study found.
Leaving cholesterol unchecked is not a wise option, say the authors who followed nearly 1,500 people.
"Lipid years" take a toll, they say.
While not every person with mild or moderately raised cholesterol will need to start on drug treatment, they might benefit from changing their diet and getting more exercise, says Dr Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, lead author of the research paper, published in the journal Circulation.
What we do to our blood vessels in our 20s, 30s and 40s lays the foundation for disease in later life, and if we wait until our 50s or 60s to think about heart disease prevention, an important opportunity is already lost, she says.
Too much cholesterol in your blood can lead to a gradual build-up of fatty material in the walls of your blood vessels and restrict the flow of blood to your heart, brain and body.
In time, your arteries can become so diseased that you experience heart pain, called angina, or suffer a heart attack.
Around a third of deaths in the UK are caused by cardiovascular disease, accounting for more than 180,000 deaths each year.
Guidelines were recently updated to recommend that millions more people should be offered cholesterol-lowering medication to save more lives.
Heart disease death rates have been falling, but more rapidly in older age groups than in younger ones and morbidity appears to be increasing.
The government recommends that total cholesterol levels should be:
•5mmol/L (193mg/dl) or less for healthy adults
•4mmol/L (154mg/dl) or less for those at high risk
In the UK in 2011, around 50% of adults had a cholesterol level above 5mmol/L.
For the study, the US researchers tracked the health of 1,478 adults who were free of heart disease and enrolled in a trial looking at heart risk.
At age 55, nearly two-fifths of the study participants had at least 10 years of exposure to high cholesterol.
Over the next 15 years, their risk of heart disease was 16.5% - nearly four times the rate of 4.4% seen among those without high cholesterol.
Each decade of high cholesterol raised the risk of heart disease by 39%.
Doireann Maddock of the British Heart Foundation said: "We already know that too much cholesterol in your blood is a risk factor for having a heart attack or stroke.
"This study suggests that even slightly high cholesterol levels in otherwise healthy adults between the ages of 35 and 55 can have a long-term impact on heart health.
"It's never too early to start thinking about your heart health. By eating a healthy diet and keeping physically active you can help improve your cholesterol level.
"If you're over 40, you are entitled to a health check from your GP or practice nurse which includes a cholesterol check."