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Healthy Cholesterol May Lower Cancer Risk

HDL 'Good' Cholesterol Associated With Reduced Risk for Cancer
By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 15, 2010 -- Maintaining a healthy cholesterol level may help protect you against cancer, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center in Boston conducted an analysis of 24 trials that investigated the pros and cons of cholesterol treatment interventions, primarily statin therapy. The research team looked at high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol that is protective against heart disease, and the incidence of cancer.

Their analysis showed that the higher the HDL cholesterol levels, the lower the rate of cancer. There was a 36% lower rate of cancer for every 10 mg/dL higher level of HDL. This association held even after adjusting for other factors that can influence both cholesterol and cancer development, including age, body mass index, diabetes, sex, smoking status, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol that clogs arteries and contributes to heart disease.

The findings were published in the June 22 issue of Journal of the American College of Cardiology and were based on 145,743 patients with a median follow-up of five years, during which 8,185 cases of cancer occurred.

Though the findings do not suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between cholesterol and cancer, it does build on an existing body of evidence that shows an association between the unhealthy type of cholesterol and an increased risk of cancer.

“There is a strong and important relationship between the level of good cholesterol that people have in their blood and their risk of getting cancer. This supports another potentially important role for HDL in the body,” says study researcher Richard Karas, MD, PhD, executive director at the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute.

HDL is responsible for transporting cholesterol to the liver and keeping cholesterol moving throughout the body. Higher HDL is associated with a twofold to threefold reduced risk for heart disease. The biological mechanisms in which HDL might also protect from cancer is unclear, the researchers say. Some theories are:

  • HDL may have antioxidant properties that protect against cell damage. Cell damage increases the risk of abnormal cell growth or cancer development.
  • HDL may affect the immune system and help the body better defend itself against cancer.
  • HDL may have anti-inflammatory properties that quell cancer cell growth and help maintain a biological environment in which cancer cells cannot thrive.

Further research is needed to tease out these biological behaviors, says Karas. In the meantime, patients can still benefit from getting their cholesterol levels regularly checked and learning the values of both their LDL and HDL numbers. “Patients need to be informed and understand what each cholesterol number means for their overall health and risk of disease,” he says.

Bad Cholesterol: Cancer Risk Factor?

In an accompanying editorial, Jennifer Robinson, MD, MPH, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Iowa College of Public Health in Iowa City, writes that low HDL levels could help clinicians identify who is at risk.

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Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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