MINNEAPOLIS — A genetic condition that causes dangerously high cholesterol levels and may lead to heart attacks by middle age is twice as common in the United States as doctors believe, according to one of the first studies to look for it exclusively among Americans.
The disorder, familial hypercholesterolemiaor FH, may occur in as many as 1 in 250 adults, or about 834,500 people, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported in the journal Circulation. That estimate is double the amount in previous reports that were based on small studies and surveys conducted abroad.
While men and women are equally at risk, black and white Americans are affected nearly twice as often as Mexican Americans, the report said.
Identifying and treating FH in young people is critical, since experts believe excess cholesterol in the blood can lead to a fatty buildup in arteries, called plaque, and health complications early in life.
While proper diet and exercise are key preventive measures, those who need more aggressive treatment generally take generic cholesterol-fighting drugs called statins. New injected drugs from Amgen Inc., Sanofi, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. may help patients with hard-to-treat forms of the condition.
The estimate is important “because FH is associated with a high risk of early heart disease and death,” said study author Sarah de Ferranti, director of preventive cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at Harvard Medical School. “It seems to come up in individuals who are young and otherwise wouldn’t be experiencing these events,” de Ferranti said.
Health guidelines recommend screening children for high cholesterol as young as age 2, and the tests are generally given when a patient’s family has a frequent history of high cholesterol or early heart disease.
The researchers analyzed data from 36,949 adults who participated in the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and extrapolated their findings to the 210 million US adults who are at least 20 years old.