The Limits of

You eat well, exercise regularly, and take medication to keep your "good" cholesterol-or high-density lipoproteins (HDL) -at optimal levels in order to lower your risk of heart and stroke. But are you really protected? While living a healthy lifestyle is always essential, a new research study questions the specific health benefits of using medication to raise HDL.

Facts about Bad and Good Cholesterol Levels
You probably know that not all cholesterol is created equal. That's why when your doctor orders a blood test to measure the number, it's not only the total cholesterol level he's interested in, but also the breakdown of other elements, including the "good" HDL and "bad" LDL. Ideally you'll want to aim for a higher HDL level and lower LDL for best cardiac health, since excess LDL in your blood can form plaque on the arteries leading to your heart and your brain, while having higher amounts of HDL is believed to help prevent this build-up. That's why if your HDL levels are naturally low, your doctor may prescribe medication to increase them, assuming that bringing the levels up will provide added protection against a heart attack.

Research on HDL Levels and Benefits
But a study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute points out that the benefits of trying to raise your HDL level may not actually pan out as expected.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers studied the DNA of 170,000 people and identified the genetic makeup of those naturally "programmed" to have higher HDL levels. They looked at more than a dozen unique DNA variations that were associated with elevated HDL levels, but none of them seemed to offer the expected protection against a heart attack. This means that taking steps to raise your HDL may not ultimately change your risk of having a heart attack.

These findings, which were published in the Lancet in the spring of 2012, call attention to the need for researchers to delve further into the role that HDL plays in overall cardiac health. It should also encourage them to look more closely at genetic variations when developing new types of medications.

What This Means For You
On a more personal level, the study results should prompt you to revisit your own strategy to manage your cholesterol levels. If you haven't had your numbers checked recently, you should ask your doctor to do this and to help you use the results to make strategic lifestyle changes. If you do take cholesterol medications, talk to your doctor about the effectiveness of trying to lower LDL rather than raising HDL. You can also take some important steps to lower your overall cholesterol levels and protect your heart health, such as eating low-fat foods, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically fit, and avoiding tobacco smoke.



American Heart Association. "Good Versus Bad Cholesterol." 28 May 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

Broad Institute. "Raising HDL not a sure route to countering heart disease." 16 May 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

Voight et al. "A Mendelian randomization study for plasma high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and risk for myocardial infarction." The Lancet (12): Published online 16 May 2012. Web. 9 July 2012.