More Than 4 In 10 Adults In America Suffer From High Cholesterol And Don’t Even Know It

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When addressing the prevalent issue of high cholesterol in the United States, a recent scientific analysis has revealed both encouraging and concerning trends.

While the percentage of U.S. adults grappling with elevated levels of “bad” cholesterol has been on the decline, a staggering revelation has come to light: over 40 percent of individuals with high cholesterol are unaware of their condition and are consequently not receiving the necessary treatment to rectify it.

The study authors wrote, “Although the prevalence of severely elevated LDL-C (bad cholesterol) has declined, 1 in 17 U.S. adults still have LDL-C levels of 160 to 189 mg/dL [high cholesterol] and 1 in 48 adults have LDL-C levels of 190 mg/dL or greater [extremely high].”

Millions of Americans Are Unaware of Their High Cholesterol and Remain Untreated

Published this month in JAMA Cardiology, the research led by senior study author Salim Virani, MD, and his colleagues scrutinized health information from approximately 24,000 individuals aged 20 and above participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Over ten survey periods spanning from 1999 to 2020, it was discovered that about 8 percent of participants had high cholesterol, with nearly 3 precent grappling with extremely high cholesterol.

Translating these survey findings to the broader U.S. population, scientists calculated a decline in high cholesterol prevalence from approximately 12 percent of adults (equivalent to 21.5 million Americans) to about 6 percent (14 million) or the span of two decades. Similarly, the prevalence of extremely high cholesterol witnessed a decline from about 4 percent (6.6 million adults) to 2 percent (4.8 million adults) during this timeframe.

However, a deeper investigation by the research team unveiled a troubling statistic: a significant portion of individuals with high cholesterol were unaware of their condition and, consequently, remained untreated. This number decreased from nearly 12 million adults at the beginning of the study period to just over 6 million at the end, constituting over 40 percent of people with high cholesterol.

For those in the extremely high range, the number declined from 3 million to 1.4 million. The study also shed light on the disparities in treatment and awareness, with Black, Hispanic, and low-income Americans disproportionately affected.

There are Life-Threatening Implications for Bad Cholesterol

Dr. Joshua Knowles, an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford Health Care in California, interprets these findings as a testament to America’s progress in addressing cholesterol-related issues. However, he emphasizes that there is still a considerable distance to cover in this battle.

Dr. Knowles says, “We’ve been beating a drum for a long time talking about the importance of high LDL cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. While we’ve made some inroads, there’s still room for improvement. Folks are still massively underdiagnosed and undertreated.”

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that can accumulate in the inner walls of arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and potentially causing blood clots that may result in heart attacks or strokes.

However, the American Heart Association highlights that LDL cholesterol, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol, “is one of the major controllable risk factors” for these life-threatening complications.

To combat unhealthy cholesterol levels, adopting a healthy lifestyle is paramount. This includes adhering to a nutritious diet, particularly limiting saturated fat intake, engaging in regular exercise, and considering cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins.

Dr. Knowles, who was not involved in the research, says, “Statins are largely responsible for the decreased risk of heart attack and stroke that we’ve seen over the last few decades in the United States. We’re in a golden age of medications that can be used to treat LDL very effectively and very safely.”

Dr. Knowles stresses the importance of periodic cholesterol screening, emphasizing that high cholesterol often manifests without noticeable symptoms. This proactive approach can bridge the awareness gap and ensure timely intervention, potentially saving lives in the process.

“While having high cholesterol doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a heart attack, stroke, or other heart event, it dramatically increases that risk. So it’s really critical to know your cholesterol and get treatment. If you treat it, you can reduce the risk by 80 to 90 percent in many cases,” he says.