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Too young to get a cholesterol check? Think again

High cholesterol is something most people associate with getting older, but the fact is you can have high cholesterol at any age.

It now seems early detection and treatment in people in their mid-twenties can mean a reduced risk of heart disease and even heart failure later in life.

So do you really need a cholesterol test before you are 40?

In the past year, two key scientific research papers highlighted the potentially life-saving benefits of early cholesterol checks.
  • The first was a landmark study of nearly 400,000 people from 19 countries which was published in leading health journal The Lancet. It was the first study to link ‘bad’ or LDL cholesterol with a higher long-term risk of heart disease for people under 45, not just people at older ages.
It found that someone with high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol when they were younger (under 45), had a greater risk of heart attack or stroke by the age of 75, than someone who was found to have high ‘bad’ cholesterol at 60.
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The call out by researchers was to know your cholesterol level from your mid- twenties so, if you get a high ‘bad’ cholesterol reading, you can take steps to keep it in check. The researchers believe treating people under 45 for high ‘bad’ cholesterol could prevent one in 8 women, and one in 4 men, from having a heart attack or stroke later in life.
  • The second research paper, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, looked at cholesterol and blood pressure data from 6 studies involving more than 36,000 Americans. It came to the sobering conclusion that if you have high ‘bad’ cholesterol during young adulthood, your risk of developing heart disease later in life was 64 per cent higher than your friends who have healthier cholesterol levels. And this increased risk was above and beyond other key factors such as smoking, being overweight and diabetes.
The researchers said the findings should be a wake-up call for people in their 20s and 30s to get tested for cholesterol and blood pressure sooner than later, so they can make positive lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, losing weight and stopping smoking.

Taking a step back, just what is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat made in the liver and carried around in your body in the blood. You actually need cholesterol to produce everything from hormones to vitamin D and the acids that help you absorb nutrients from food and drink.

There are two types of cholesterol:
  • LDL cholesterol - when there’s too much LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol in your blood, it can damage your arteries, cause blood vessels to narrow or become blocked, and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.
  • HDL cholesterol - this ‘good’ cholesterol helps protect you against heart disease by picking up excess cholesterol in the blood and taking it back to the liver.

Are there any warning signs for high cholesterol?

Unlike many health conditions, there’s no easy way to spot symptoms or warning signs that your cholesterol may be high. That’s why it can go undetected until you have a blood test, or in the worst case scenario, a serious health event like a stroke or heart attack.
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The only way to diagnose high cholesterol is for your doctor to order a simple blood test that checks your lipid profile - your good and bad cholesterol levels.

What triggers high cholesterol?

When it comes to high cholesterol there are triggers that we can control, and some we can’t.

A poor diet, smoking, not exercising enough, and being overweight are all modifiable factors that can negatively impact your cholesterol levels. Factors that are harder to manage, or out of our control all together, are our genetics, having diabetes, getting older and a family history of high cholesterol.

What can you do to help manage your cholesterol?

Years of research has identified various dietary strategies you can adopt to improve your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease, and CSIRO has collected a tick list to ensure your diet is as heart healthy as possible.

This includes:
  • Cutting back on discretionary foods including foods high in sugar, salt and fat such as cakes, pastries, biscuits, ice-cream and soft drinks;
  • Including healthy unsaturated fats in your everyday diet, from foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils such as extra virgin olive oil, canola oil and flax seed oil, to vegetable-based spreads;
  • Include fibre-rich foods (wholegrains) into your diet every day;
  • Incorporate soy protein into your diet from sources such as soy milk and soy cheese;
  • Increase your intake of vegetables and fruit aiming for five vegetable and two fruit serves a day;
  • Include plant sterol enriched food sources such as margarine and certain breakfast cereals; and
  • Balance your intake of saturated and unsaturated fatty acid sources.