TORONTO – You typically start to worry about cholesterol levels later on in adulthood but a new study is warning that high cholesterol even in your 30s could be a warning sign for heart disease later in life.
The research is a piece of a larger story in which scientists have warned over the past few years of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke appearing earlier in life.
For every 10 years of living with “mildly elevated cholesterol” between 35 to 55 years old, your risk of heart disease could be creeping up by nearly 40 per cent, Duke University researchers say.
“The plagues in arteries that break off and cause heart attacks later in life take years to develop. What is happening in your blood vessels, in particular your cholesterol levels, during your 30s and 40s affects your heart health in your 50s, 60s and 70s,” lead author, Dr. Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, said.
“It’s never too soon for young adults to talk with their doctors about heart health, which should include how to manage cholesterol levels through diet and exercise and in certain cases medication,” she said.
READ MORE: Why measuring your blood pressure matters – even for teens
Navar-Boggan’s research is based on data from the Framingham Heart Study – it started in 1948 and is dubbed as one of the largest ongoing research projects focused on heart health.
The study looked at 1,478 adults who didn’t have heart disease at 55 years old, but calculated how long each person had high cholesterol by that age. Then, the group was followed for up to 20 years to see how their heart health fared.
By age 55, 389 people had one to 10 years of high cholesterol, 577 had 11 to 20 years of high cholesterol and the remaining 512 didn’t have high cholesterol at all.
If participants had about a decade or two of high cholesterol, they had a 16.5 per cent “overall risk” of heart disease, while those with less than 10 years of increased cholesterol had an 8.1 per cent risk.
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If a participant was cholesterol-free, their risk sat at 4.4 per cent for heart disease. It all adds up, the researchers say: every decade of high cholesterol raised heart disease risk by 39 per cent.
The researchers note that only one in six adults who had long-term high cholesterol would’ve been recommended blood thinners at age 40, though.
They say that not every 30-something-year-old patient in a precarious position with heart disease would need statin therapy, but that young adults should have their elevated cholesterol levels flagged by a doctor.
Their full findings were published Monday evening in the journal Circulation.
Measuring cholesterol as a marker for heart disease often occurs later on in life, but doctors are now warning of a string of factors that Canadians should pay attention to even in early adulthood.
READ MORE: Heart attacks on the rise in younger Canadians, experts say
Stroke is conventionally most common in seniors over the age of 70, for example, but a 2014 report cautioned: Canadian stroke patients are getting younger, with rates steadily increasing in people between 24 and 64 years old.
The profile of the quintessential Canadian stroke patient is also changing: they’re juggling surviving their stroke with managing chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation report.
Last year, Northwestern University researchers also suggested that detecting high blood pressure even around 18 years old may be a warning sign for heart disease.
READ MORE: Stroke patients are getting younger in Canada, new report warns
Blood pressure changes between early adulthood and middle age could be a tell-tale sign for cardiovascular disease down the road, the U.S. study said. That’s decades earlier than doctors and patients typically start to worry about hypertension.
Traditionally, heart disease affects Canadians over the age of 65. Under the age of 50 is “certainly” young, meanwhile there are now people in their 30s or 40s managing heart disease.