‘Good’ cholesterol is actually bad after menopause, new research finds

Women should avoid high cholesterol foods after the menopause. [Miguel Discart/Flickr]

Researchers in the United States have found that hormonal changes in women during the menopause can cause so-called ‘good cholesterol’ to become dangerous to their health. EURACTIV France reports

‘Good cholesterol’ usually protects the arteries by helping to transport ‘bad cholesterol’ to the liver to be processed. But recent research in the United States suggests that the risk of heart disease in women increases dramatically after the menopause, because even good cholesterol becomes harmful.

According to the ten-year study carried out on 1,054 American women by Karen Matthews, of the University of Pittsburgh, women’s cholesterol levels tend spike after the menopause, placing them at greater risk of cardiovascular events.

>> Read: Kidney function linked to cardiovascular health

Samal El Khoudary, another University of Pittsburgh researcher, spent nine years studying 225 women between the ages of 40 and 50, none of whom had a history of cardiovascular problems before the menopause.

The transformation of ‘good cholesterol’

There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, or ‘bad cholesterol’, and HDL, known as ‘good cholesterol’. The researchers found that “HDL cholesterol can change during the transition period of the menopause. It no longer protects the cardiovascular system.”

Patients with high levels of LDL cholesterol have a far higher risk of developing heart disease, and their condition should be closely monitored. Excessive LDL cholesterol is the main cause of atherosclerosis, a stiffening of the arteries that can lead to cardiovascular diseases. Cholesterol levels can be controlled with a strict diet and suitable medication.

But it has also been proved that HDL cholesterol protects the arteries against this phenomenon, and helps keep the cardiovascular system healthy.

The findings unveiled by Samal El Khoudary at the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) this month indicated that the deterioration of HDL cholesterol’s protective role is caused by hormonal changes that occur during the menopause.

NAMS director general Wulf Utian stressed the severe lack of data on the issue. “We need to better understand how [this process works] in order to be able to protect patients from heart disease, which is the number one killer of women in the United States,” he said.

Ignored by politicians

Efforts to counter cardiovascular disease have primarily come from medical professionals and patients’ organisations. The lack of effective policy in the area is often criticised by specialists, who call for more prevention and screening programmes.

>> Read: Cardiologists point to novel areas for prevention?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cardiovascular diseases account for 30% of all premature deaths worldwide, making them the world’s biggest killer. Research has shown that high levels of cholesterol can also be dangerous for the brain and has revealed links to Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

>> Read: Health experts link cholesterol to other unexpected diseases

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer are by far the biggest causes of death in the world, accounting for 60% of deaths.

Around four million people in Europe and 1.5 million in the European Union die each year from heart disease, according to the European Heart Network (EHN) and the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). The commonest forms of heart disease are coronary diseases and strokes.

To reduce the number of deaths from heart disease, the European Union has decided to take action on the factors behind cardiovascular health in its 2014-2020 health programme. 

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