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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Adults as young as 20 need pay attention to their cholesterol because unhealthy levels may already be damaging their arteries, researchers reported on Tuesday.
They followed a group of 18- to 30-year-olds for 20 years and found that higher cholesterol at a relatively early age increased the risk of heart disease and stroke later.
"We don't usually worry too much about heart disease risk until a person is in middle age because it's rare to have a heart attack in young adulthood," said Dr. Mark Pletcher of the University of California, San Francisco, who led the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
"Young adulthood also matters. The damage you sustain then to your coronary arteries probably is going to catch up with you later," he added.
Pletcher and colleagues looked at data from more than 3,200 young adults -- roughly evenly divided between black and white, male and females. Those with high levels of low density lipoprotein -- LDL or "bad" cholesterol -- in youth were more likely to develop heart disease later, regardless of their cholesterol levels later in life.
The researchers said the results do not mean young adults necessarily need to take medicine to lower their cholesterol, but should make sure they exercise and watch what they eat.
"Diet and exercise may be more important than cholesterol-lowering medication in young adults," said Pletcher. "We don't have enough direct data in terms of effectiveness and safety of treatment of young adults to recommend that."
In an earlier study also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Pletcher found high blood pressure in young adults leads to higher risk of coronary heart disease later in life.
The American Heart Association recommends that everyone age 20 and older test their cholesterol once every five years. People with a reading of 200 milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood are at risk for heart disease.
An estimated 17.6 million Americans have coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and other industrialized countries.
Under federal healthcare legislation passed in March, health insurance plans must pay for preventive services, including cholesterol screening, although many do already. Most insurance holders will see this benefit starting in 2011, but large employer plans may not have to change under the new law.
The new regulations also allow young adults to stay on their parents' plans until they turn 26.
Makers of cholesterol tests include Quest Diagnostics, Genzyme and Johnson and Johnson.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Vicki Allen