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Good Cholesterol Levels Have Been Linked to Cancer Prevention

By Chris Iliades, MD

Almost everyone knows that high cholesterol is not good for the heart. But not all cholesterol is bad. There is one type of cholesterol we should strive to increase. Cholesterol is carried throughout the body’s cells by lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins, low-density (LDL) and high-density (HDL). High-density is the good type and low-density is the bad type.

LDL is the predominant type of cholesterol found in the body. It is considered bad cholesterol because an overload of LDL can cause thickening and rigidity (so-called “hardening”) of the arteries, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and an increased risk of heart disease. HDL is good for the heart and blood vessels because it reduces the amount of LDL in and around the arteries by carrying cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver where it can be released from the body.

Good Cholesterol Protects the Heart: Could it Also Prevent Cancer?

The Journal of American College of Cardiology recently published a study that focuses on a possible connection between cancer and HDL levels. The study is based on research from 24 clinical trials. In previous studies the researchers had found that high LDL levels were associated with a higher cancer risk. In this study it was found that higher HDL seems to be associated with a lower cancer risk.

“For every 10-mg/dL increase in HDL cholesterol levels, there was a 28 percent reduction in the risk of cancer. In a model that controlled for other variables, including LDL cholesterol, age, body-mass index (BMI), sex and smoking status, there was a significant 36 percent lower risk of cancer for every 10-mg/dL increase in HDL cholesterol.” —The Heart.Org

How Might HDL Cholesterol Lower Cancer Risk?

According to one of the authors of the study, one reason might be antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from cell damage that could lead to cancer. There is a lot of data that shows how diets rich in antioxidants reduce the risk of cancer. HDL cholesterol has antioxidant properties, so it’s possible that the antioxidant effects of higher levels of HDL cholesterol could help to reduce the cancer risk.

Another reason why HDL might protect people from cancer is that HDL may strengthen the body's immune surveillance system: HDL has been shown to improve the ability of the white blood cells to find and destroy abnormal cells that might become cancer cells.

The evidence does indicate an association between cancer and HDL, but it does not prove that HDL prevents cancer. A great deal of research will need to continue before doctors can confirm that there is a direct cause and effect relationship. What doctors can confirm is that HDL is definitely good for the heart. Therefore, making an effort to maintain good cholesterol is important for a healthy lifestyle. And it may turn out that it helps in the prevention of cancer as well.

Risk Factors for Bad Cholesterol

How do you keep your LDL low and your HDL high? One of the first steps is knowing your risk factors. Bad cholesterol can become a problem at any age. Therefore, it is important to get an early start when it comes understanding what types of behavior may lead to cholesterol problems. Cholesterol used to be considered a problem that increases with age, but doctors are now aware that children and young adults are also at risk. Therefore, early prevention is essential, especially for individuals who have a family medical history that predisposes them toward cholesterol problems.

Risk factors for bad cholesterol include:

  • Children or adults who suffer from obesity
  • Individuals who have a family medical history of high blood cholesterol or heart disease
  • Sedentary lifestyles such as watching too much television throughout the day or sitting at a desk all day without out getting up for exercise
  • Food that is high in bad fats such as saturated and trans fats, including highly processed foods at the grocery store or fast food restaurants

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy HDL Level

It is also important to get regular check-ups and to alert your physician if you are a high risk individual. Here are some other tips to get started:

  • Get blood cholesterol blood levels checked regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly, at least 20 minutes a day.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Use oils from plants for cooking such as olive oil or canola oil.
  • Avoid trans fats in highly processed foods.
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fats such as olive oil, fatty fish, and walnuts.
  • Avoid saturated fats in fatty meats and full-fat dairy products.

Healthy HDL habits are important for everyone. Simple adjustments in diet and lifestyle can play a huge factor in improving HDL as well as overall health and well-being.