Unlike a lot of men, the writer never worried about cholesterol -- until some surprising studies linked low cholesterol to violent behavior.
June 26, 2000 -- "This can't be right," the medical technician tells
me, reading a number off the small display screen. "We'll have to do the
test one more time."
"But wait," I object, telling her that my cholesterol level has
always been on the low side. No use. Not once but twice, she jabs the tip of my
finger and squeezes out a few drops of blood to test. The numbers remain
stubbornly low: barely over 120. The average for most people is around 180.
Infertility has traditionally been thought of as a woman's problem. But as
it turns out, we men don't get off that easily. About one out of every three
cases of infertility is due to the man alone, and we're somehow involved in
infertility about half the time.
A diagnosis of male infertility can be one of the hardest challenges a man
can face. For some, it can be devastating. After all, the necessity of
reproduction is one of the few things on which both Darwin and the Bible agree.
As usual, I feel an absurd swell of pride at the results of the blood test,
as if I've just passed an exam with flying colors. I've always counted myself
lucky. Unlike a lot of men, I don't have to worry about cholesterol -- that
notorious clogger of arteries.
Or so I thought. Then, a few months ago I read a headline that made me
wonder: Low Cholesterol Linked to Violence, Suicide.
Violence? Suicide? Is it possible that someone's cholesterol level might be
Smashing Cars and Other Things
To find out, I put in a call to Vivian Mitropoulou, PhD, who is studying the
link between cholesterol levels and personality disorders at Mount Sinai School
of Medicine in New York. The alarm sounded in the mid-1980s, she tells me,
after researchers began testing the first drugs designed to lower elevated
cholesterol levels. People taking these drugs seemed to be dying at an
unusually high rate from causes unrelated to cardiovascular disease, she
Unrelated is right. As Mitropoulou says, "A lot of them seemed to be
smashing their cars into bridges and doing all sorts of impulsive and violent
And there are other reasons to fret. At least a dozen reports show the risk
of suicide may be substantially higher in people with low cholesterol. For
instance, in a French study that tracked 6,393 men, published in the September
1996 issue of the British Medical Journal, those with low cholesterol
were three times more likely than the other men to kill themselves. A study at
Payne Whitney Clinic in New York, published in the March 1995 American
Journal of Psychiatry, divided participants into four ranges of low to high
cholesterol levels. Researchers found that the men with the rock-bottom
cholesterol levels were twice as likely as those in the other three ranges to
They may also be more likely to hurt someone else. When Mitropoulou and her
colleagues at Mount Sinai recently studied 42 patients with personality
disorders, they found a strong link between lower-than-average cholesterol and
impulsive, aggressive behavior.
What's behind the violent behavior and suicidal tendencies? One answer could
be depression. In findings published in the September 1999 British Journal
of Psychiatry, researchers from Finland's National Public Health Institute
showed that in a group of more than 29,000 Finns studied, low total cholesterol
put men at greater risk of being hospitalized for major depression. A link
between low cholesterol and depression has turned up in at least half a dozen