The US government reported yesterday that results from a national survey found the total average cholesterol level dropped to 199 last year. Experts consider 200 and lower to be ideal. This is a very significant outcome, and the first time in 50 years that the US population, on average, has been in the healthy range.
Experts say that the growing use of cholesterol-lowering pills in middle-aged and older people is believed to be a key reason for the improvement. When the survey began in 1960, the average cholesterol was at 222.
High cholesterol can clog arteries and lead to heart disease, which is why pharmaceutical companies have targeted this area with heavy investment both in R&D and marketing. The result? Cholesterol medications are the top-selling class of U.S. drugs, and sales have grown steadily from about $13 billion in 2002 to nearly $22 billion in 2006, according to IMS Health, a Connecticut-based consulting company that monitors pharmaceutical sales.
These drugs include Lipitor, made by Pfizer Inc.; Zocor, by Merck & Co.; and Pravachol, from Bristol-Meyers Squibb. A new product from Merck is Mevacor, a product the firm hopes to begin selling over the counter if they can convince the FDA that consumers are smart enough to know when they need it.
Doctors' groups have increasingly recommended more aggressive use of these drugs in patients seen to be at risk from heart disease. And screening has become common -- two-thirds of men and three-fourths of women have been screened for high cholesterol in the last five years according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers also found that the percentage of adults with high cholesterol, 240 or higher, dropped to 16 percent, down from 20 percent in the early 1990s. As an indicator of the possible problems with surveys of this sort, they also reported that the most pronounced declines were in men aged 40 and older and women 60 and over.
"These age groups are the ones most likely to be treated with medication," said Susan Schober of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and lead author of the report. There was little change in cholesterol levels for other age groups, prompting some experts to suspect the news may not be all good. This is the kind of incomplete information that can be confusing when large reports like this are released showing national averages.
"If you take away the people on medication, I don't think there's been as much of a meaningful improvement as we would like," said a spokesperson from the American Heart Association. Obesity rates in teens and young adults have been shooting up, and it's possible they are experiencing gains in triglycerides and losses in "good" cholesterol.
While it is entirely possible to "fix" things via pharmaceutical medicines, what would be better for society in the long run is an understanding of nutrition-based remedies, and alternatives derived from natural products.