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February 14, 2019

Over 80? Cholesterol Might Help

High levels of "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides can actually make it more likely that people in their 80s will remain fully functional.

High cholesterol raises your risk for heart attacks and strokes, no question. When people reach their 80s, however, the picture on cholesterol may not be so simple, recent research shows.

When people are over 80, a higher total cholesterol level — but with a lower level of low density lipoproteins or “bad” cholesterol — may actually be helpful when it comes to being able to perform daily activities. Low cholesterol is also linked to a higher risk of death from cancer, respiratory disease and accidents in adults aged 80 and older, according to the Chinese study. Added to this is the finding that the value of taking statins, medications to lower cholesterol, may be lower among those who are 80 or over.

Higher triglyceride levels at age 80 or over were linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline, to being more likely to be able to perform daily tasks, less frailty and a lower risk for death.

It's not that cholesterol is suddenly good, or that you should stop taking your statins, but that the “risk factor paradox” needs to be kept in mind. The idea behind the paradox is that by the time a person is 80, some conditions that are considered health risks in younger adults, like having higher total cholesterol, higher blood pressure and a higher body mass index, predict better, not worse, survival.

Take triglycerides, for example. Your body uses these blood fats for energy, but high levels of triglycerides can raise risks for heart disease, at least in younger adults. Chinese researchers decided to learn more about whether current triglyceride-level guidelines make sense for people aged 80 and older.

To uncover any links between triglyceride levels and death in a group of 930 Chinese adults who were 80 or older, researchers kept track of their triglyceride levels; their ability to perform daily self-care activities; their ability to think and make decisions; and frailty, a condition that increases the risks of poor health, falls, disability and death.

What they found is that higher triglyceride levels in people 80 and over were not only linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline, they were also linked to a higher likelihood of being able to perform daily tasks, less frailty and a lower risk for death.

The results call into question the idea that having high triglyceride levels is a risk factor for age-related chronic disorders like heart disease and death, at least among these seniors.

The study is published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.

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