“Ted 70, loves paintball. A month ago his cholesterol was 5.1. It’s well below that now “
So reads the announcement in an advert which proudly promotes the cholesterol lowering power of it’s popular dietary product. (Sunday Independent 1 July, 2012.)
Having reportedly consumed the widely marketed plant sterol containing product in question, Ted now proudly parades a placard which boasts the magic figure of 4.6.
Ted has lowered his cholesterol from 5.1 to 4.6, and has likely been informed that his risk of having a heart attack has been reduced, and his chances of living longer have been markedly improved.
I am genuinely concerned about Ted, and wonder if anyone has ever told him how important his cholesterol is for health and survival, and how essential it’s role is in normalizing his brain function, stabilizing the millions of cell membranes in his body, and providing essential protection against a host of bacterial infections to which the elderly are susceptible.
I am concerned that Ted may be labouring under the false hope of having an extended life because of his lowered cholesterol !
And, I wonder if anyone has ever told Ted that all the heart health expectations, generated by high powered marketing strategies, aimed at lowering cholesterol levels in healthy people, are entirely without a shred of scientific evidence ?
Like many of his contemporaries, Ted may well be deluded into believing that cholesterol is his enemy, and that it’s level in his blood should be reduced at all costs, and by any means.
There are many sound clinical studies which show clearly that high cholesterol in older folks is a friend and not a foe, and a predictor of longevity, rather than mortality !
In other words, older people, like Ted, are more likely to live longer if their blood levels of cholesterol are higher, rather than lower !
One study in 2010 showed that total cholesterol levels below 5.5 in people of Ted’s generation shortened their lives significantly, while another study in 2006, looking at over 30,000 patients in 81 acute care units, found that hospitalized patients over the age of 65 recovered faster if their cholesterol levels were high.
Two separate studies reported in the Lancet in 1997 showed that for every INCREASE in total cholesterol by 1 mMol/L there was a corresponding DECREASE of 15% in mortality.
So, Ted could be in trouble !
The placard he proudly holds tells us that his cholesterol levels have dropped, and may even drop further if he continues to consume the advertised product.
The advert boldly states that plant sterols will lower your cholesterol, and emphasises that “this is a fact”, but the true facts have been reported in the scientific studies quoted above, which highlight the dangers of Ted unnecessarily and unnaturally lowering his cholesterol.
Tragically, the true facts are clouded by the marketing hype of the food and drug industries, and by a poor understanding of how cholesterol exerts its protective benefits, by the many practicing health professionals who continue to induce an unwarranted fear in the minds of otherwise healthy people.
In a 1992 review of 19 large scale studies, in which the cause of death was assessed, Dr. David Jacob found that low cholesterol predicted an increased risk of dying from gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.
But not only is the unnecessary and artificial lowering of blood cholesterol a health concern.
The methods used may also be a real source of concern.
Many people have been turned away from eating animal products because of the unwarranted fear of cholesterol ingestion, and have been enticed to consume plant sterols as alternatives, in the form of margarines, spreads, yoghurts and other products.
Unlike human cholesterol, plant sterols are not synthesized in the human body, and are thus not essential to health. When ingested, they compete with dietary cholesterol and inhibit the absorption of cholesterol, thereby reducing the natural levels of circulating cholesterol throughout the body.
Because plant sterols significantly lower LDL-cholesterol they have attracted the attention of the food and drug industry, with research efforts aimed at using plant sterols as a therapeutic agent. Numerous studies have successfully tested the reductions of LDL-C with dietary phytosterols, but have not succeeded in demonstrating cardiovascular benefit by so doing.
In other words, lowering cholesterol has not produced the anticipated benefit of protection against a heart attack or stroke or premature death, and consuming plant sterols may, in some cases, actually increase the risk of such events.
Several studies have shown that high levels of ingested plant sterols could produce a condition known as sitosterolaemia, associated with increased risk for lethal atherosclerosis.
In one very large well known study (4S) a subgroup having the highest levels of plant sterols also had the highest risk of recurrent coronary disease, despite having lower levels of cholesterol as a result of statin use.
In a German study researchers showed an increase in plaque formation and atherosclerosis lesions with commercially provided dietary plant sterols.
The widely held conventional view that high cholesterol levels are associated with increased risk of dying is not based on scientific evidence, and serves only to heighten anxiety unnecessarily, with far greater consequences for health than a harmless elevation of cholesterol numbers.
In summary, resorting to dietary plant sterols for cholesterol reduction, not only has no scientifically proven health benefit, but may also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and an unwanted heart attack.
My advice to Ted, based on solid science, is to be less concerned about his cholesterol numbers, and more concerned about a healthy lifestyle, and to be wary about the excessive consumption of products that offer no guarantee for a long or a healthy life.
Dr. Neville Wilson,
The Leinster Clinic,