Survey: Cholesterol Levels Increasing in Some Young Adults

While total cholesterol levels have decreased substantially among middle-aged and older adults in the last 20 years, that is not the case for younger adults, according to a survey in the Dec. 20 issue of the journal Circulation.

Too much cholesterol -- a waxy, fat-like substance that builds up in blood vessels -- is a risk factor for heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. A low-cholesterol diet and frequent exercise can help keep levels under control, as well as using cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins.

Increased use of statin drugs are probably why older adults have lower cholesterol levels than 20 years ago, said Donna Arnett, chair of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author of the study.

Arnett and other researchers analyzed the health data of nearly 5,000 patients who were enrolled in the Minnesota Heart Survey between 1980 and 2002.

While the survey was good news for older adults, young adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s had little to no change in their cholesterol levels over the same period, and among one group -- women aged 25 to 34 -- a small but statistically significant increase was noted, Arnett said.

"The message for people who are young is that they should be much more aggressive in terms of maintaining a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Arnett said that while cholesterol levels were not associated with heavier body weight, they were linked with low levels of physical activity.

For younger adults, "physical activity has flattened off" in the past few years, Arnett said.

Even though there's been an overall decrease, about 50 percent of all the adults surveyed still had total cholesterol concentrations that fell into "borderline-high risk" for heart disease, Arnett said.

A level of 240 mg/dL or more on a cholesterol blood test is considered high-risk, according to the American Heart Association. Two hundred to 239 is borderline high.

People should be checked annually for cholesterol if they are in the high-range, have other risk factors for heart disease or have an "HDL" level of 40 or less, states the AHA. HDL is high-density lipoprotein, or the "good" cholesterol since it carries away the sticky "bad" cholesterol, known as LDL, or low-density lipoprotein.

"We're doing a much better job of increasing the number of people using drugs to lower cholesterol, but the mean prevalence of hypercholesterolemia is still very high," Arnett said.