U.S. government guidelines recommend an aggressive approach for treating high cholesterol and preventing heart disease in millions of women and men U.S. Government Guidelines for Treating High Cholesterol | Heart Disease Treatment | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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U.S. Government Guidelines for Treating High Cholesterol

U.S. government guidelines recommend an aggressive approach for treating high cholesterol and preventing heart disease in millions of women and men. The new guidelines were revised in 2001 from 1993 treatment guidelines by a national panel of 27 members and consultants representing public health organizations, medical groups, nursing associations, consumer groups, and federal agencies. The panel made significant updates to the previous cholesterol guidelines, calling for an estimated an increase in the number of people that need to take cholesterol-lowering drugs from 13 million Americans to an estimated 36 million.

Guidelines for treating high cholesterol:

  • Treating patients with at least a 20% risk having a heart attack in 10 years as aggressively as those who already have heart disease: Physicians should take into account a variety of factors, such as age, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, etc., and determine the patient's risk of having a heart attack. Those at 20% or higher risk of having a heart attack within the next 10 years should be treated aggressively with lifestyle changes and medicines.
  • Treating high cholesterol more aggressively in people with diabetes: Studies show that people with Type II (adult onset) diabetes are at high risk of dying from a heart attack. These patients should be treated as aggressively as patients who already have heart disease with dietary changes, exercise, and cholesterol-lowering medicines.
  • Using a lipoprotein profile as the first test for high cholesterol: A lipoprotein profile involves measuring:
    1. LDL ("bad") cholesterol
    2. total cholesterol
    3. HDL ("good") cholesterol
    4. triglycerides (chemical form of fat in the body).
A lipoprotein profile should be given to patients once every five years.
  • Modifying the current HDL ("good") cholesterol level guideline to 40 mg/dL: The guidelines set the definition of low HDL ("good") cholesterol at 40 mg/dL. An HDL level of 60 mg/dL or above is considered protective against heart disease.
  • Emphasizing the need for nutrition, exercise, and weight control in treating high cholesterol: The guidelines recommend an intake of less than 7% of daily calories from saturated fat and less than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol. Up to 35% of daily calories can come from total fat, provided that most of these calories are from unsaturated fats that do not raise cholesterol levels. The panel recommended:
    1. Greater intake of plant stanols and sterols (included in certain margarines and salad dressings) as a percentage of total daily food intake
    2. Greater intake of soluble fiber (included in cereal grains, beans, peas, legumes, and many fruits and vegetables)
    3. Greater need for weight control
    4. Greater need for increased physical activity
  • Identifying people with "metabolic syndrome" and treating them aggressively to prevent heart attacks: Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterized by abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, high blood-sugar levels, and low HDL ("good") cholesterol. These people are a high risk of heart attack and should be treated aggressively with lifestyle changes.
  • Treating people with high triglyceride levels more aggressively: People with high triglyercide levels (chemical form of fat in the body) are at a high risk of heart disease. Therefore, the panel recommended that even patients with borderline-high triglyeride levels be treated with weight control and exercise. Cholesterol-lowering medicines are appropriate for some people with high triglyercides.

Normal triglycerides

Less than 200 mg/dL

Borderline-high triglycerides

200 to 400 mg/dL

High triglycerides

400 to 1000 mg/dL

Very high triglycerides

Greater than 1000 mg/dL

*based on fasting plasma triglyceride levels. Source: American Heart Association.

  • Advising against taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) instead of cholesterol-lowering drugs to lower cholesterol: Because studies have not conclusively proven that HRT can decrease the risk of heart attack or death among post-menopausal women with heart disease, the guidelines recommend that women use cholesterol-lowering drugs instead of HRT for the purpose of lowering their cholesterol.

"The guidelines will help doctors determine heart attack risk more precisely than was possible before," said Dr. Scott Grundy, ATP III chairperson and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, in an NHLBI news release at the time the guidelines were issued. "That allows treatment to be more individualized. We now know that cholesterol-lowering treatment is more effective when its intensity closely matches the level of risk."

Examples of statins used to lower cholesterol:

  • Lipitor (generic name, atorvastatin)
  • Mevacor (generic name, lovastatin)
  • Pravachol (generic name, pravastatin)
  • Zocor (generic name, simvastatin)

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States and in Europe. Approximately 12.8 million Americans suffer from coronary artery disease and nearly 500,000 Americans die from heart attacks caused by coronary artery disease each year. Over 12 million Americans have a history of heart attack, chest pain (angina), or both. Dr. Lenfant, Director of the NHLBI, said that if the new cholesterol guidelines are followed, heart disease would no longer be the number one cause of death.

Additional Resources and References

Updated: March 16, 2008