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U.S. cholesterol levels going down

November 17, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Statins The development of statins, a class of drugs that lower bad cholesterol, have made a big effect. A study published today found that the prevalence of American adults with high levels of LDL cholesterol (that's the bad kind) fell by about one-third from 1999 to 2006. Paradoxically, the study also found that a huge number of people still have excessively high levels of bad cholesterol, are not being treated for it or may even be unaware of their levels.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., examined LDL cholesterol levels among more than 7,000 men and women across four study cycles: 1999-2000, 2001-2002, 2003-2004 and 2005-2006. Rates of high LDL cholesterol decreased from 31.5% in 1999-2000 to 21.2% in 2005-2006.
Yet researchers from the federal government found that many people had elevated rates of bad cholesterol, particularly those at the highest risk for developing heart disease. Fewer than 70% of adults nationwide were screened for cholesterol levels in the 2005-2006 period. During that time period of the study, 64.5% of people received cholesterol screening, 39.6% were screened but were untreated or inadequately treated and 24.9% were not told the results of screening.
In two commentaries accompanying the study, experts noted that cholesterol screening guidelines have become too complex and should be simplified so that more people receive statins. Dr. J. Michael Gaziano and Dr. Thomas A. Gaziano noted in one editorial that the last set of cholesterol guidelines, published in 2002, was 280 pages long. The guidelines are not only complicated, they are far from perfect, sometimes leading doctors to prescribe statins to someone with elevated LDL cholesterol but who has an overall low risk of heart disease and not prescribing drugs to someone with normal LDL cholesterol but who has an overall high risk of developing heart disease.
Another approach to treating cholesterol, said the authors of the other commentary, is to prescribe generic statins to all adults based on age. This approach may be justified, they said, in light of the large number of people who could benefit from statins but are not getting the medication; because statins have been shown to be safe and because generic versions of the medications are inexpensive. 

However, that approach may overly simplistic, said Michael Gaziano and Thomas Gaziano. Arbitrary, fixed LDL thresholds for prescribing statins should be abandoned, they said.

"The guideline should begin with simple risk assessment with the goal of classifying patients into only two strata: those for whom lipid-lowering therapy should be considered and those for whom it is not warranted," they wrote. "The use of a simplified risk-based approach could increase the ease of implementation of treatment and increase the number of patients receiving beneficial lipid-lowering therapy."
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times