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Healthy Heart Reports

Low Cholesterol May Be Harmful

A study in the British medical journal, Lancet, shows that elderly men who have low blood cholesterol levels die earlier than those with higher levels. This does not mean that having a high cholesterol prolongs your life. It means that having a high cholesterol when you are under age 70 puts you at high risk for a heart attack, but having a high cholesterol when you are older may mean that you are getting all the nutrients that you need, and having a low cholesterol when you are over 70 may mean that a person is not eating or absorbing adequate amounts of essential nutrients.

In this study, thirty-five hundred Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii were followed for 35 years. Those with cholesterol levels below 150 died earlier than those with levels of 232. We usually disregard studies like this because we know that a drop in cholesterol with aging often means that a person has a hidden cancer or some other serious disease that interferes with his nutrition, but this study is different. It shows that having a continuously low cholesterol is associated with an early death. The authors also showed that men and women with the lowest cholesterol levels also had the weakest grip strength and had other measures of frailty. That means to me that they are missing something from their diet or exercise programs. Many scientists now explain that we may be putting too much emphasis on cholesterol as a predictor of disease in older people, because diseases that interfere with absorption of nutrients cause heart attacks and cancers and shorten your life.

Having a very low cholesterol could mean that you are not eating enough food. The following are harmful eating habits that cause disease and shorten life: eating too much food, calories, fat, saturated fat, partially hydrogenated fat; and not eating enough vegetables and whole grains, beans and other seeds. Not eating enough vegetables and seeds may be the most harmful because that deprives you of their essential vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and omega-3 fatty acids. So when you read that the latest research shows that having very low cholesterol may be as dangerous as having a very high cholesterol, realize that a very low cholesterol may be associated with not getting enough nutrients because you don't eat enough plants, or because your body is not absorbing essential nutrients from the food that you eat.

I believe that everyone should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts; limit meat, poultry and whole milk dairy products; avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils; don't be obese and try to exercise at least five times a week. If you do all of these things and your cholesterol is very low, ask your doctor to check for malabsorption problems.

August 4, 2001 issue of The Lancet

Copyright 2003
Dr. Mirkin's opinions and the references cited are for information only, and are not intended to diagnose or prescribe. For your specific diagnosis and treatment, consult your doctor or health care provider.

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