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Cholesterol Levels Fall Among Older Americans

Government researchers credit seniors' increased use of statin drugs and not healthier lifestyles.

October 15, 2005|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Cholesterol levels in older Americans have fallen markedly over the last 40 years, but the decline is due primarily to increased use of statin drugs rather than to healthier lifestyles, government researchers reported this week.

Statins, which include such widely used medicines as Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol, can dramatically reduce levels of cholesterol that can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks.

Researchers estimate that every 1% decrease in cholesterol levels translates to a 1% decrease in deaths from heart disease.

Between 1960 and 2002, average total cholesterol levels for men and women ages 20 to 74 dropped from 222 milligrams per deciliter of blood to 203, mostly because of declines in people 50 and older, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Among Americans ages 60 to 74, average levels fell from 232 to 204 in men, a 12% decline, and from 263 to 223 in women, down 15%. Below 200 is considered desirable for people at average risk for heart disease.

Also, in the study's final decade, the percentage of adults with high cholesterol -- a reading of at least 240 -- fell from 20% to 17%, which is about eight years sooner than the government's goal of reaching the 17% mark by 2010.

At the same time, the portion of adults using cholesterol-lowering drugs, mostly statins, increased from 3.4% to 9.3%, with higher rates in the oldest Americans.

However, other studies have shown that between 1988 and 2002, the percentage of overweight American adults climbed from 56% to 65%, while obesity rates increased from 23% to 30%, counterbalancing the effects of lowered cholesterol.

Obesity is often accompanied by high cholesterol levels, and both factors raise the risk of a heart attack or a stroke.

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