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Does How You Lower Your Cholesterol Affect Your Risk for Heart Disease?

The methods by which you lower your cholesterol might play a bigger role in your risk for cardiovascular concerns than we previously thought.

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Cholesterol has long been a key marker when it comes to heart health. High cholesterol makes you more likely to develop heart disease, while low cholesterol is a sign that your cardiovascular system is in good shape. And because of this, the common tactic that’s been used to improve heart health, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease has been to give statins a try.

Statins are medications that are used to lower cholesterol, and they’re able to block a particular substance that the body needs to make cholesterol. But beyond cholesterol, statins can have a potentially positive effect on other heart health factors too, like strokes, plaque on blood vessel walls and blood clots. 

However, a new review and meta-analysis published in JAMA International Medicine raises questions about how cholesterol levels impact the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as how effective common treatments for “bad” cholesterol may be. And, ultimately, taking statins may not have as strong of a connection to a lower risk for heart disease, heart attacks and strokes as we previously thought. 

Statins may not be as effective for heart disease risk as once thought

Years of prior research has suggested that using statins to lower high cholesterol levels – specifically, LDL-C (or “bad”) cholesterol – can have a positive effect on heart health. As a result, statins are now a commonly prescribed treatment. 

However, in the review and meta-analysis published in March 2022, new findings suggest that those statins may not really have a big impact on overall heart health. And there may not be such a strong link between taking statins to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Researchers’ findings actually contradict our long-held ideas about statins. Rather, they found that lowering LDL-C cholesterol with statins can have a surprisingly inconsistent impact on cardiovascular health – and the impact on heart disease factors like heart attacks, strokes and all-around mortality is inconclusive. For some individuals, the benefits they may see from taking statins are quite small and varied. 

While more research is needed to support the idea that long-used statins might not have a remarkably positive effect on the risk of heart disease, this study could ultimately change the way we think about lowering cholesterol. Fortunately, there are ways to forge healthier habits and better your heart health.

A healthy diet may have a bigger impact on your risk for heart disease (and benefit cholesterol levels)

It’s possible to alter your risk for heart disease – and all of the health concerns that can contribute to it, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and strokes – by living a healthy lifestyle. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends focusing on overall healthy habits if you’re working towards better heart health rather than fad diets and a strict focus on select foods.

Incorporating foods, oils and even seasonings or spices into your diet can potentially have a positive effect on your risk for heart disease. For example, antioxidant-rich olive oil has been suggested as an ingredient that can reduce cardiovascular mortality by nearly 20 percent. And incorporating more leafy greens into your daily diet may benefit those who are at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Even the act of eating more nuts might have a helpful effect!

Plus, you can even improve your heart health beyond nutrition alone. Whether you’re worried about cholesterol levels, blood pressure or your risk overall, you can make certain lifestyle changes or heart-healthy habits (some of which are even fun!).