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Low cholesterol levels may not benefit older people

HONOLULU, HAWAII. There is little doubt that high cholesterol levels are detrimental to people aged 65 years or younger. Whether high cholesterol levels also affect older people negatively is a lot less clear. Some studies have shown a similar correlation between cholesterol levels and mortality as found for younger people while others have concluded that high cholesterol levels are actually beneficial to people over 65 years of age.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii now weigh in with a large study designed to settle the controversy. The study involved 3572 Japanese/American men between the ages of 71 and 93 years. The men had their cholesterol levels and numerous other parameters measured in 1991-93. By December 1996 there had been 727 deaths in the group. The researchers found that men with an average total cholesterol level of 5.99 mmol/L (235 mg/dL) had a 35 per cent lower mortality rate (adjusted for age) than did men with an average cholesterol level of 3.85 mmol/L (150 mg/dL). The correlation between mortality and cholesterol levels was not changed after adjusting for other variables that could affect mortality. The researchers also found that cholesterol levels tended to decline with age – from an average of 5.0 mmol/L (195 mg/dL) in those aged 71 to 74 years to an average of 4.61 mmol/L (180 mg/dL) in those older than 85 years. They also observed that study participants who had maintained low cholesterol levels for 20 years or more had the highest mortality of all.

The researchers cannot explain why high cholesterol levels should equate to longer life in older people, but caution against prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs to older people.
Schatz, Irwin J., et al. Cholesterol and all-cause mortality in elderly people from the Honolulu Heart Program: a cohort study. The Lancet, Vol. 358, August 4, 2001, pp. 351-55

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