No matter where we live, how old we are or what we look like, health researchers from the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health have discovered that 90% of the chance of having a first heart attack “can be attributed to nine modifiable risk factors.” The nine factors that could save our lives include: smoking, too much bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, a lack of daily fruit and veggie consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise.
Dr. William Clifford Roberts, Executive Director of Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and long-time Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, is convinced, however, that atherosclerosis has a single cause—namely cholesterol—and that the other so-called atherosclerotic risk factors are only contributory at most. In other words, we could be stressed, overweight, smoking, diabetic couch potatoes, but if our cholesterol is low enough, there may just not be enough cholesterol in our blood stream to infiltrate our artery walls and trigger the disease. Thus, the only absolute prerequisite for a fatal or nonfatal atherosclerotic event like a heart attack is an elevated cholesterol level.
It was not appreciated until recently “that the average blood cholesterol level in the United States, the so-called normal level, was actually abnormal,” accelerating the blockages in our arteries and putting a large fraction of the normal population at risk. That’s cited as one of the reasons the cholesterol controversy lasted so long—an “unwillingness to accept the notion that a very large fraction of our population actually has an unhealthily high cholesterol level.”
Normal cholesterol levels may be fatal cholesterol levels.
The optimal “bad cholesterol” (LDL) level is 50 to 70. Accumulating data from multiple lines of evidence consistently demonstrate that that’s where a physiologically normal LDL level would be. That appears to be the threshold above which atherosclerosis and heart attacks develop. That’s what we start out at birth with, that’s what fellow primates have, and that’s the level seen in populations free of the heart disease epidemic. One can also look at all the big randomized controlled cholesterol lowering trials.
In my video, Optimal Cholesterol Level, you can see graphing of the progression of atherosclerosis versus LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol means more atherosclerosis, but if we draw a line down through the points, we can estimate that the LDL level at which there is zero progression is around 70. We can do the same with the studies preventing heart attacks. Zero coronary heart disease events might be reached down around 55, and those who’ve already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent a second one might need to push LDL levels even lower.
Atherosclerosis is endemic in our population in part because the average person’s LDL level is up around 130, approximately twice the normal physiologic level. The reason the federal government doesn’t recommend everyone shoot for under 100 is that despite the lower risk accompanying more optimal cholesterol levels, the intensity of clinical intervention required to achieve such levels for everyone in the population would “financially overload the health care system. Drug usage would rise enormously.” But, they’re assuming drugs are the only way to get our LDL that low. Those eating really healthy plant-based diets may hit the optimal cholesterol target without even trying, naturally nailing under 70.
The reason given by the federal government for not advocating for what the science shows is best was that it might frustrate the public, “who would have difficulty maintaining a lower level,” but maybe the public’s greatest frustration would come from not being informed of the optimal diet for health.
It’s imperative for everyone to understand Dr. Rose’s sick population concept, which I introduced in When Low Risk Means High Risk.
What about large fluffy LDL cholesterol versus small and dense? See Does Cholesterol Size Matter?
More from the Framingham Heart Study can be found in Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers