Men who reach their 85th birthdays tended to have high levels of HDL cholesterol while in their 60s, a new study says.
Researchers found that men with the highest HDL cholesterol were 28% less likely to die before they reached 85, compared to men in the lowest HDL group.
This paper, published online in the American Journal of Cardiology, adds to the evidence that HDL is important for a long life, said Dr Nir Barzilai, who heads the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and was not part of the study.
However, "we always have to remember that it's an association," and it does not mean that having high HDL increases life span, he said.
The researchers, from the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology and Research Information Centre in Boston, looked at the medical records of about 650 veterans when they were around 65 years old, then grouped them based on HDL levels.
Starting with low levels of 40 mg/dL, they found that for each ten mg/dL increase of HDL, the men were 14% less likely to have died by 85. Overall, 375 survived to that age.
Also, fewer of the men with higher HDL were overweight, and they tended not to have more than 2 drinks a day. And fewer of them had heart disease or smoked, compared to the lowest HDL group.
These other factors might have had an effect on survival, Dr Barzilai said. However, the researchers did account for this, and still showed a link between reaching 85 and high HDL levels, he said.
HDL levels hard to alter
"It's difficult to change HDL levels," Dr Barzilai said. Exercise might raise it a few points, but it isn't a very efficient way to improve, he said. "We need to get a drug eventually."
Merck and Roche are both working on an HDL raising drug, he said. Pfizer stopped its research into another such drug, torcetrapib, in 2006 because people taking it along with Lipitor in a study had a higher rate of death.
The B-vitamin niacin may raise HDL levels 15 to 35%. A three-month supply costs about nine dollars. Niacin is also found in dairy products, lean meats, nuts, eggs and fish.
However, it's unclear how much raising HDL will prevent heart disease, Dr Barzilai said, so whether drugs might improve people's health remains to be seen.
(Reuters Health, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, February 2011)