Statins in 20s may help people avoid heart attacks and strokes in later life, say experts

Sarah Knapton
High cholesterol in young people may be even more dangerous because they are exposed to it for longer - © AllSquare/Park / Alamy

Prescribing statins to people in their 20s could prevent heart attacks and strokes in their 70s, a new study has suggested.

Researchers who analysed the health outcomes for 400,000 people aged between 40 and 59, found those who had high cholesterol at a young age were far more likely to suffer cardiovascular problems 30 years later.

Although it was known that cholesterol in middle age and older is dangerous, nobody had ever looked to see if the same risks applied for younger people. 

The scientists from Queen’s University Belfast and Germany, said that high cholesterol in young people may be even more dangerous because they are exposed to it for longer. 

Professor Stefan Blankenberg, medical and clinical director at the University Heart and Vascular Center in Hamburg, said: “You should determine your cholesterol at the very young age.

“You need to enable these younger individuals to do something about the risk.

“Our research suggests that having bad cholesterol levels may be associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular events by the age of 75 years, and this reduction in risk is larger the sooner the cholesterol levels are reduced.”

He added that cholesterol could be measured at the age of 25 or 30 to give people the opportunity to change their lifestyles or take a statin. 

Currently cardiovascular risk is calculated over 10 years and mostly for people in their 50s or older. But researchers said alarm bells should be ringing decades earlier for young people with high cholesterol.

The study published in the Lancet showed that women with bad cholesterol levels between 3.7-4.8 mmol/litre, who were younger than 45, and had at least two additional cardiovascular risk factors, had a 16 per cent probability of experiencing a cardiovascular disease event by the age of 75.

Yet for women aged 60 or over with the same characteristics, the estimated risk was just 12 per cent.

Similarly for men with the same characteristics, the estimated risk for those aged under 45 was 29 per cent, yet was only 21 per cent for those aged 60 or more.

Commenting on the findings Prof Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said the younger people may benefit from statins. 

“This large study again emphasises the importance of cholesterol as a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke. 

“It also shows that for some people, taking measures at a much earlier stage to lower cholesterol, for example by taking statins, may have a substantial benefit in reducing their lifelong risk from these diseases.  

“The authors also provide a useful tool to help doctors have a conversation with patients about their risk and how it might be lowered.”

Prof Paul Leeson, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, at the University of Oxford, said: “Everyone knows high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack.  

“What has been demonstrated for the first time in this paper is that having a high cholesterol when you are below the age of 45 disproportionately increases your risk of having a problem during your lifetime. 

"That suggests it is not just the cholesterol level but how long you have high cholesterol that puts you at risk.

 “Exactly how to reduce cholesterol effectively in young people and, in particular, whether you would need to take drugs for decades to do this is not explored but will be important to consider before these findings can be included into medical guidance.”