(HealthDay News) — People at age 55 who’ve lived with 11–20 years of high cholesterol show double the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to people who age with only one to 10 years of high cholesterol, and quadruple the risk of people who had low cholesterol levels. These findings were published online January 26 in Circulation.

Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, MD, PhD, a cardiology fellow at the Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, NC, and colleagues used data from the Framingham Heart Study to identify 1,478 adults who had not developed incident cardiovascular disease by age 55, and then calculated the length of time each person had experienced high cholesterol by that age. The authors defined high cholesterol at about 130mg/dL of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and then followed these adults for up to 20 years past age 55 to see how their exposure to high cholesterol affected their risk of CHD.

The results showed that a person’s long-term “dose” of high cholesterol appears to directly affect their future risk of CHD. Participants with 11–20 years of high cholesterol had a 16.5% overall risk; those with one to 10 years of cholesterol exposure had an 8.1% risk; and those who did not have high cholesterol at the start of the study had only a 4.4% risk for CHD.

Navar-Boggan compared extended exposure to high cholesterol to the concept of “pack years.” “We should really be thinking about cholesterol the same way,” she explained to HealthDay. “What are your cholesterol years?”

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