(HealthDay News) — Familial hypercholesterolemia affects about one in every 250 American men and women and significantly increases their risk for an early heart attack, according to a study published in the March 15 issue of Circulation.

Sarah de Ferranti, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues analyzed data concerning 36,949 American adults enrolled in the 1999-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. To determine rates of familial hypercholesterolemia, they looked at levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The researchers then looked for evidence of early cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack or stroke at a young age, in individuals or their close relatives. The cut-offs were before 55 for men and before 60 for women.

Using a statistical model, the team concluded that roughly 834,500 Americans have this inherited condition. Risk varied considerably depending on ethnicity: about one in 414 for Mexican-Americans; one in 249 among whites; and one in 211 among blacks. Risk also appeared to differ with age, rising from one in every 1,557 adults in their 20s to about one in every 118 men and women in their 60s. Obesity also boosted risk, the researchers found.

The new estimate includes both severe forms of the condition and potentially under-the-radar cases. That’s because even relatively mild forms convey a “substantially higher risk for early heart disease,” de Ferranti told HealthDay.

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