The Real Quarter-Life Crisis: The Quarter Pounder

Hey, twenty-somethings: you might want to think twice before taking a bite out of that bacon double cheeseburger. While you may be young and carefree, you may not be young at heart. New research has found that abnormal cholesterol levels even during young adulthood are associated with coronary heart disease later in life.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is very common among middle-aged and older adults. More than 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older. Having CHD increases your risk of having a heart attack. There are several risk factors for developing CHD, one of which is elevated cholesterol levels. The CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) was designed to assess whether abnormal blood lipid and cholesterol levels during young adulthood cause changes in the heart and arteries that persist into middle age.

Coronary heart disease is not seen as frequently in young adults, but is it possible that what we do in our twenties will come back to haunt us decades later?

For this study, 3,258 participants aged 18 to 30 were recruited from four U.S. cities.  They were followed over a 20-year period. Throughout the two decades, participants underwent blood tests which examined their total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”), their HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), triglycerides (a measure of fat in the bloodstream) and coronary calcium. Researchers were evaluating whether having a condition called “dyslipidemia,” which is characterized by low levels of the good HDL cholesterol and high levels of the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, contributes to accumulation of coronary calcium and atherosclerosis later in life. Atherosclerosis, which refers to hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to fatty build-up, is often a medical consequence associated with dyslipidemia.

The presence of coronary calcium and atherosclerosis are risk factors associated with heart attacks. Because the study was over a relatively short period of time, coronary calcium was examined, as opposed to actual clinical outcomes of CHD, such as heart attacks. The study found that the presence of coronary calcium was strongly associated with abnormal lipid and cholesterol levels in young adulthood.

These results suggest that harmful changes may be occurring in the arteries of young adults with unfavorable cholesterol levels, and that these changes may persist into middle age. Maintaining optimal cholesterol levels in young adulthood (ideally with LDL cholesterol  < 100, HDL cholesterol > 40 and Triglycerides <150) is important in order to reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease.

So what can you do to protect your heart? Well, we know that overconsumption of saturated or trans fats can increase our bad cholesterol and decrease our good cholesterol. Avoid or limit foods high in saturated fat, such as fried food, red meats, and cheese. Trans fats should be completely avoided; these are frequently found in margarine, and baked goods (such as cookies or cakes) that have a long shelf-life. Look at your ingredient list: if you see “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil”, that means the product contains trans fats. Eating too much sugar, or drinking too much soda or alcohol may elevate trigylcerides. And lastly, to increase the good HDL cholesterol, the best thing you can do is exercise.

Nutrition is preventative medicine: this study adds to the accumulating evidence that eating well and exercising while you’re young decreases the risk of developing certain diseases, especially heart disease, later in life. You can’t see the repercussions of poor dietary habits right away, so if you are unsure about your cholesterol levels, ask your doctor to run a blood test. It’s important to start taking care of your heart while you’re young. You know what they say: it’s never too early. And that’s especially true when it comes to our health.

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