George Mann, an eminent 20th century American physician and scientist, called it “the greatest scientific deception of this century, perhaps of any century.”
He was referring to the idea that heart disease can be prevented or reduced by lowering elevated blood cholesterol. He is not alone. Many of today’s scientists agree with him.
Since heart disease is the leading cause of death, those with low cholesterol levels would be expected to have a lower risk of death compared to people with high levels.
But do they? Let’s find out.
The Lower the Reading The Higher The Risk
According to medical criteria, a “desirable” level of total blood cholesterol is under 200, 201 to 239 is considered “borderline”, and above 240 is deemed “high.”
Yet when research groups around the world look at risk of death from all causes as the preferred measure — rather than coronary heart disease risk alone – they do not find evidence to support these categories.
A study conducted among 92 women with an average age of 82 living in France found mortality was more than five times higher in those with readings below 155 compared to those with a level of 272.1
Researchers studying 3,572 Japanese-American men aged 71 or over for 20 years found, “Only the group with low cholesterol concentration…had a significant association with mortality.”2
In 2008, an analysis of five separate studies in the Japanese population found the death rate for men and women whose levels were under 160 was considerably higher than those in the range 160 – 199. The lowest death rates were in those with readings above 240.3
Two studies were published in 2010. The first involved 490 people aged 75 or above living in Finland. The findings showed those with measurements above 232 had the lowest risk of death.
The study concluded, “Participants with low serum total cholesterol seem to have a lower survival rate than participants with an elevated cholesterol level, irrespective of concomitant diseases or health status.”4
The second piece of research was a review of studies in elderly populations. The researchers concluded that measurements under 232 were associated with increased mortality in people aged over 80. The death rate was highest where total cholesterol was lowest.5
Massive Study Supports Levels Above 210
Getting right up to date, a study has just been published which looked at data from over 12 million South Koreans over the age of 18 divided into six age groups.
After nine to twelve years follow-up, there were nearly 700,000 deaths. The findings showed those with the lowest mortality had readings in the range 210 to 249. This applied to every age group except for men under 34 and women under 44.
Either below 210 or above 249 increased risk, although below this range the risk was threefold stronger than above it. Cholesterol readings above 249 did not seem to be especially detrimental, particularly for those aged 75 or over.6
This means those with a reading between 240 and 249, who would be considered “high risk” for heart disease, are within the lowest category of risk for mortality from all causes.
The reason why low cholesterol shortens lifespan — as the Korean researchers point out — is because it is linked to hemorrhagic stroke, digestive and respiratory diseases and several forms of cancer. These would seem to outweigh any heart benefits, assuming there are any.
So What Should You Do about Cholesterol?
Based on the findings from all these studies, the “desirable” level, as far as mortality is concerned, is above 200, not below it.
I’ve been writing about this subject for years, and trying to bring the public’s attention to the dubious science that underlies the cholesterol scare. It is nothing but a hoax, in my view, but perhaps I’m too harsh.
I certainly would NOT take a cholesterol-lowering drug under any circumstances.
If I was really scared about cholesterol (I’m not,) then I might undertake drastic dieting. My total cholesterol on the latest test was a whopping 297, and that shook even me. But I’m already at an ideal weight, I exercise, and I eat pretty healthy (meat maybe five meals a week, out of 21). I’ve always had high or borderline high total cholesterol.
In view of the very weak connection (if any) between high cholesterol and risk of death, I’m not going to take any further action.
High cholesterol is most likely a reaction against inflammation, an effort of the body to protect itself. I know I have a chronic inflammation problem. I’m working on it. But I’m not going to do anything about cholesterol as such.