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The findings might help doctors pinpoint which of their younger patients are in need of cholesterol-lowering therapies, the researchers said.
"We . . . want to look at prescribing patterns for statins in younger patients who are at increased risk for heart disease," said study lead author Bradley Collins, a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School.
"Ultimately, we would like to develop new tools for calculating heart attack risk that are more applicable to younger people," Collins said in a news release from the American College of Cardiology (ACC).
Most people who get their cholesterol checked regularly know there is the bad LDL form, which clogs arteries, and the good HDL form, which can help keep arteries clear.
In the new study, Collins' team tracked the medical records of more than 800 relatively young people -- men younger than 45 and women younger than 50. All had been treated for heart attack at two large medical centers over the past 16 years.
The analysis revealed that these younger people who'd had a heart attack were more likely to have low levels of good cholesterol than high levels of bad cholesterol.
Specifically, low HDL cholesterol was seen in about 90 percent of the men and 75 percent of the women, the study authors said.
That suggests that different measures may be required to accurately spot heart attack risk in this age group, Collins said, and traditional tools for calculating heart attack risk may underestimate risk in these patients by putting too much emphasis on a patient's age.
"For many people, heart attacks can be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle," Collins stressed. People can increase their HDL cholesterol levels by quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, eating more fruits and vegetables, and avoiding trans fats and other unhealthy fats, he said.
"When we identify individuals who have a higher risk, however, we can achieve the greatest risk reduction by combining a healthy lifestyle with medications," Collins added.
The study is scheduled to be presented March 17 at the ACC's annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.
The researchers plan follow-up studies. "We are examining whether low HDL cholesterol also predicts risk for repeat heart attacks in younger patients, and whether there are genetic risk factors in this population," Collins said.
Research findings presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
-- Robert Preidt
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