Numerous epidemiological studies carried out over the last decades have shown a link between exposure to cardiovascular risk factors early in life and cardiovascular events at a later age. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are important modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and major components of risk prediction algorithms.
In prospective studies, childhood obesity, which subsides in adulthood, appears to cause only a slight increase in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) over the course of life. Similarly, a few years after quitting smoking, the cardiovascular risk associated with smoking seems very low, even if smoking is stopped in adulthood. The same is not true for hypertension and hypercholesterolemia. Treatment of hypertension with medication does not reverse the damage done earlier in life, mainly to the heart, blood vessels and kidneys. For example, people who are hypertensive, but whose blood pressure is normalized by medication, have an increased risk of CVD after age 40. Treatment of familial hypercholesterolemia by statins significantly reduces the risk of CVD in young adults, but these people have more atherosclerotic CVD.
Until recently, we did not know whether exposure to these risk factors in early adulthood independently contributed to the risk of CVD, i.e. regardless of exposure to these same risk factors later in life. A study on the long-term effects of hypercholesterolemia and hypertension experienced at a young age, including a large amount of data and therefore of great statistical power, was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC). The data included in this study came from 6 U.S. cohorts, including 36,030 participants, who were followed for an average of 17 years.
The study found a strong association between having high blood pressure (BP) or high LDL-cholesterol at a young age (18–39 years), and the development of cardiovascular disease later in life (≥40 years). Specifically, young adults with LDL-cholesterol> 2.6 mmol/L had a 64% higher risk of coronary heart disease than those with a level of <2.6 mmol/L, regardless of cholesterol-LDL levels later in life. Similarly, young adults with systolic BP ≥130 mmHg had a 37% higher risk of heart failure than those with systolic BP <120 mmHg, and young adults with diastolic BP ≥80 mmHg had a 21% higher risk of heart failure than those with diastolic BP <80 mmHg. With respect to the risk of stroke after age 40, they are not affected by elevated cholesterol levels or increased systolic or diastolic BP at a younger age (18–39 years).
Even slightly elevated LDL-cholesterol levels of 2.6-3.3 mmol/L during early adulthood significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease (28%) compared to <2.6 mmol / L. However, LDL cholesterol levels of 2.6-3.3 mmol/L are generally considered acceptable for healthy individuals who have no known CVD or other cardiovascular risk factors.
In an editorial published in the same journal, Gidding and Robinson suggest that the impacts of high cholesterol and hypertension in young people on cardiovascular risks later in life could be underestimated since: 1) the data from this study come from old cohorts, and we know that today’s young adults are more likely to be obese and have diabetes at a younger age; 2) there is probably a “survivor bias” in this type of study, i.e. it is possible that some young adults with particularly high blood pressure or cholesterol may have had a cardiovascular accident (an exclusion criteria) or that they have died before reaching the age at which the participants in these studies are recruited.
The increase in cardiovascular accidents before the age of 65 and the results of the study described above make it urgentto take action on prevention. Young adults, particularly women and non-Caucasians, did not benefit from the overall reduction of cardiovascular disease rates in the general population. This is probably due to three factors: the epidemic of obesity and diabetes; the lack of treatment for young adults who would benefit; the lack of clinical trials focusing on this age group, which would lead to better guidelines.
Drs. Gidding and Robinson believe that the first response of the medical community to the results of the study recently published in JACC and other similar analyses should be to become aware and recognize that there is a prevention deficit among young adults. In the United States, less than one third of adults under the age of 50 who should be treated for hypertension according to the guidelines receive treatment, and less than half of the participants in the NHANES study (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) who had a diagnostic criterion for familial hypercholesterolemia were treated with a statin.
The current trend is to treat hypercholesterolemia at a later age when the burden of the disease is already high and only a modest reduction in cardiovascular risk has been demonstrated. However, by lowering cholesterol earlier in life, mainly through a change in lifestyle, it is possible to avoid cardiovascular events in old age. By focusing more on young adults with less advanced disease and therefore more likely to be treated successfully, prevention and future clinical trials will reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease for future generations.