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DUKE HEALTH BRIEFS: START CHECKING CHOLESTEROL EARLY
According to the American Heart Association, almost half the U.S. population has high, or borderline high, cholesterol levels. Along with family history, smoking and high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease, stroke and other dangerous medical complications.
Even more alarming is that we're seeing a growing number of young children with elevated cholesterol levels, often accompanied by obesity and early-onset diabetes. Medical guidelines typically recommend that cholesterol screening begin at age 18, with screenings at five-year intervals, but many physicians, including cardiologist Michael Blazing, M.D., of Duke University Medical Center, say that's probably too late.
"The problem we have right now," says Blazing, who is assistant professor of medicine and director of Duke's Cardiac Outpatient Clinic, "is that, when you're born, typically your cholesterol level should be in the 60s. By the time we get to 18, it's in the 140s, on average in the United States. I'm talking about the 'bad' cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, here."
Blazing says that diet and lifestyle changes, coupled with medication when appropriate, can provide positive health benefits at any age.
"Modifying cholesterol in people who have never manifested coronary artery disease or heart attacks, and individuals who have only elevated cholesterol levels as a risk factor, is extremely effective in preventing heart attack and strokes and even making people live longer," he says.
Blazing adds that, in the face of the growing national crisis of childhood obesity, diabetes and related health issues, it would be a good idea to begin regular cholesterol screening as early as possible, in order to help prevent dangerous, and costly, medical problems later in life. And he says it's never too early to start.
"I say you start from birth, but you start from birth by having a good, healthy lifestyle -- watching your weight, watching how much you eat and then what you eat, with the 'how much' being more important to me than the 'what.'"
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