Researchers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute suggest that according to a 20 year follow-up study, even slightly high cholesterol levels can have long-term health impacts.
The chances of heart disease in healthy adults between the ages of 35 and 55 increases by 39 percent if their cholesterol levels are high and when it increases every decade.
Navar-Boggan and colleagues at Duke, Boston University and McGill University examined data on 1,478 adults who were free of heart disease at age 55 and who were part of the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948.
Lead author Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, M.D., Ph.D., relates the cumulative effects of elevated cholesterol to the long-term impacts of smoking.
"The number of years with elevated cholesterol, or 'lipid years' can affect you in a similar way to the number of 'pack years' you have had as a smoker," Navar-Boggan said.
"It shows that what we're doing to our blood vessels in our 20s, 30s and 40s is laying the foundation for disease that will present itself later in our lives. If we wait until our 50s or 60s to think about cardiovascular disease prevention, the cat's already out of the bag," he added.
Elevated cholesterol for this study was defined as non-HDL cholesterol of 160 mg/dL or higher. Researchers found similar results for patients with LDL cholesterol, or "bad cholesterol" of 130 mg/dL or higher.
Navar-Boggan said, is that "the effect is perhaps even stronger among adults who are otherwise healthy. So even if you control everything else in your life, you don't smoke, your blood pressure and weight are normal, and you don't have diabetes, having elevated cholesterol over many years can still cause problems in the long run."
"It's never too soon for young adults to talk with their doctors about a comprehensive strategy for heart health, first and foremost focusing on diet and exercise," Navar-Boggan said.
"Our study suggests, though, that young adults who cannot control cholesterol with diet and exercise alone may benefit from medication earlier in life."