Good news and bad on cholesterol levels: study

NEW ORLEANS Tue Nov 18, 2008 3:39pm EST

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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters Health) - Levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol among adult Americans have fallen somewhat since 1980. However, harmful triglyceride levels have nearly quintupled over the same time period, according to research presented at the

American Heart Association's annual meeting.

Research presenter Dr. Jerome D. Cohen of St. Louis University, Missouri, told Reuters Health that the falling LDL cholesterol levels may reflect Americans' greater awareness of the dangers of a high-fat diet, but the "skyrocketing triglyceride levels" reflect the increasing prevalence of obesity, which Cohen described as a "a true epidemic."

The findings are based on a look at data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey II (NHANES II) conducted between 1976 and 1980, NHANES III, covering the years 1988 to 1994, and NHANES 1999 to 2006.

The NHANES II data showed that in 1980, 48 percent of adult Americans had LDL cholesterol levels above optimal (100 mg/dL or greater) levels. By 2006, the prevalence had fallen to about 41 percent.

"This is a great story in itself," Cohen said. "It looks like we are going to achieve the goals" of Healthy People 2010. "This is attributable to an increased awareness (of heart disease), healthier diets and the increased use of (cholesterol-lowering) statins."

Sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2010 is a set of health objectives for the nation to achieve over the first decade of the new century.

However, the good news may be more than off-set by the bad in this analysis, Cohen warned. "Triglyceride levels are about five times higher they were in the first NHANES." About one third of adults have elevated triglyceride levels, he said.

The problem is that more than one third of Americans are obese and two thirds are overweight. To lower triglycerides, it's weight loss, weight loss, weight loss," Cohen emphasized. "We need to eat less, eat better and exercise more."

"We are going to be paying a price for this by an increase in deaths from heart disease," Cohen said. While statins have contributed greatly to controlling high levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, "we are reaching a saturation point of pill popping." The costs of healthcare are going to increase, as well, he noted.

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