Updated: Nov 2
A recent long-term study from Sweden, using data from the AMORIS cohort, has provided valuable research on cholesterol, and somewhat surprisingly shows a correlation between higher cholesterol levels and increased longevity.
The longevity study looked at the bloodwork data of 45,000 people over a 35 year period. Taking regular blood samples and measuring the biomarkers (glucose, cholesterol, iron, creatinine etc) the researchers could identify what factors were associated for those reaching 100 years or more. They found that high cholesterol is associated long life.
The new data appears to contradict what we have learnt, that high cholesterol is bad. Right? Wrong. When one reads past the headlines and the study's abstract, the discussion of the results and actual conclusion show otherwise. Links to this study and others are provided at end of page.
Please note, if you have immediate questions and concerns about your health and cholesterol levels, always consult with your medical practitioner most familiar with your personal medical history and circumstances.
To answer a common question relating to cholesterol, it is an essential part of all cellular function. It forms the membrane of every cell and the backbone of many key hormones. Our bodies make the required amount of cholesterol that we need for cellular function. Ingested dietary cholesterol is not required by the body, nor (for most) a health problem as it once used to be thought.
It is well established that dietary saturated fat (the fat we eat) increases LDL cholesterol. These particles, both small and large, can penetrate the lining of the vascular system and cause atherosclerosis - heart disease. The effect of LDL cholesterol on risk of heart disease is linear: the greater the exposure over lifetime, the greater the risk. There is a also dose dependent risk of LDL cholesterol for heart disease.
So what does this study show? Does it overturn the dietary recommendations?
Firstly, it is worthwhile to understand the study population. 97% were deceased by age 100. So what is happening with the remaining (actually 3%) very elderly surviving with higher levels of LDL cholesterol?
The study does indeed show a correlation between high LDL cholesterol and those reaching 100. However, the study’s authors do not find that cholesterol is protective of health but rather that the results“…indicate that high cholesterol levels are more frequently observed among individuals predisposed to survive longer."
The study concludes "Higher levels of total cholesterol and iron and lower levels of glucose, creatinine, uric acid, ASAT, GGT, ALP, TIBC, and LD were associated with a greater likelihood of becoming a centenarian. While chance likely plays a role for reaching age 100, the differences in biomarker values more than one decade prior death suggest that genetic and/or lifestyle factors, reflected in these biomarker levels may also play a role for exceptional longevity."
The study's conclusion does not state the high cholesterol is protective, as some have stated; in scientific terms: correlation is not equal to causation. For the lucky few that made it to 100, genetics and lifestyle seem to be the deciding factor.
Using data from the same AMORIS cohort, another study found that high total cholesterol at age 39–59 years was associated with a higher all-cause mortality and cardiovascular but high total cholesterol at age 60–79 and ≥ 80 years was associated with a lower mortality. This finding is in keeping with other studies, that mid-life high cholesterol is a genuine risk factor.
We know that genes play a role in people’s response to cholesterol. Some people have high cholesterol due to genetics, others the opposite. Another related scenario involves the convoluted story of dietary cholesterol. The old thinking was that dietary (ingested) cholesterol raised blood cholesterol, so the advice was to "avoid cholesterol". Based on later findings, this statement was retracted as it was not found to be the case. Confusing.
More recent studies demonstrate that a small number of people, about 15% of the population - are so called hyper absorbers. Dietary cholesterol raises their serum cholesterol. This population needs to be careful with what they eat.
When it comes to reducing cholesterol levels, diet should be a key area of focus. Says Felicia Koh (MA Human Nutrition), The Whole Health Practice's co-founder and nutritionist:
A diet that promotes longevity is high in fibre and low in saturated fat. High in omega-3s, rich in whole foods and antioxidant polyphenols. Focus on flavours that you enjoy. Try the Mediterranean diet or traditional Asian diets, mainly plants and whole foods, a little meat, fish or dairy as you prefer.
What does this mean when it comes to the plate? On a daily basis eat a whole food diet, avoid processed foods. Enjoy small portions of lean meat, oily fish, nuts and seeds, colourful vegetables, dark leafy grains, beans and whole grains, herbs and spices. Be mindful of your total alcohol intake. The PORTFOLIO diet was specifically designed with cholesterol lowering as its goal.
Other proven cholesterol lowering measures include regular physical activity and stress reduction.
Similar to this study, in another article we discussed a 2018 study associating high cholesterol with brain health in the very elderly. The conclusion was similar, not that cholesterol is neuroprotective but rather to look to the role of genetics.
When presented with new evidence It is important to ask questions and be open to new findings, that is how science works. But once again it is easy to see how science can be misrepresented by the headlines (and those that quote them) even when the actual conclusions of a study clearly state what factors are involved. If you want to have a chat about healthier living, to take action to improve your health and wellbeing, just drop us a line to see how our consults and programmes can help.
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Murata S, Ebeling M, Meyer AC, Schmidt-Mende K, Hammar N, Modig K. Blood biomarker profiles and exceptional longevity: comparison of centenarians and non-centenarians in a 35-year follow-up of the Swedish AMORIS cohort. Geroscience. 2023 Sep 19. doi: 10.1007/s11357-023-00936-w. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37726432.
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.Hooper L, Martin N, Jimoh OF, Kirk C, Foster E, Abdelhamid AS. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Aug 21;8(8):CD011737. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011737.pub3. PMID: 32827219; PMCID: PMC8092457.
Ference BA, Yoo W, Alesh I, Mahajan N, Mirowska KK, Mewada A, Kahn J, Afonso L, Williams KA Sr, Flack JM. Effect of long-term exposure to lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol beginning early in life on the risk of coronary heart disease: a Mendelian randomization analysis. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2012 Dec 25;60(25):2631-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2012.09.017. Epub 2012 Oct 17. PMID: 23083789.