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Lower cancer risk is another reason to like 'good' cholesterol

June 15, 2010 |  6:00 am

HDL High-density lipoprotein cholesterol, otherwise known as the "good" cholesterol, is known to help protect against heart disease. The bad cholesterol, LDL, raises the risk. Now there's another reason to aim high with HDL cholesterol. A study suggests that people with higher rates have less cancer.

Researchers at Tufts University analyzed data from 24 studies that tested medications to alter cholesterol. The participants' medical records were examined for cancer incidence. The total number of participants was more than 145,000 with more than 8,000 cases of cancer reported.

But people who had higher levels of HDL (typically considered more than 40 mg/dL for men and more than 50 mg/dL for women) had a two- to three-fold lower risk of heart disease and a 36% lower risk of cancer for every 10 mg/dL higher level of HDL. This was found even when the researchers controlled for other factors that affect cancer, such as age, body mass index, diabetes, sex and smoking status.

The study does not prove that having higher HDL reduces cancer risk. It's not clear how HDL may protect against cancer, said the lead author of the study, Dr. Richard Karas. It could be HDL helps rid the body of harmful antioxidants that can damage cells and cause cancer. Or, HDL may boost the immune system to fight cancer or help quell inflammation in the body that can trigger abnormal cell growth.

Many people focus on their bad cholesterol, but it's important to remember that HDL matters too.

"Patients need to be informed and understand what each cholesterol number means for their overall health and risk of disease," Karas said in a news release.

The study was published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

-- Shari Roan

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Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times