Increases in Serum Non-High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol May Be Beneficial in Some High-Functioning Older Adults: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging

Arun S. Karlamangla, PhD, MD; Burton H. Singer, PhD; David B. Reuben, MD; Teresa E. Seeman, PhD


J Am Geriatr Soc. 2004;52(4) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Objectives: To examine the association between changes in serum non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (non-HDL-C) over a 2.5-year period and risk of adverse health outcomes in the following 4.5 years in high-functioning older adults.
Design: Prospective cohort, established in 1988, with a follow-up in 1991 and 1995.
Setting: Population-based, community-dwelling men and women.
Participants: A random sample (n = 267) from the MacArthur cohort (N = 1,189). The cohort represented the highest-functioning tertile of 4,030 screened candidates aged 70 to 79.
Measurements: Change in non-HDL-C between 1988 and 1991 was measured as a predictor of health outcomes between 1991 and 1995, including all-cause mortality, and among survivors, incident heart attack or stroke, development of new disability in basic activities of daily living, and decline in performance on the Short Portable Mental Status Questionnaire.
Results: More-positive change in non-HDL-C between 1988 and 1991 was associated with fewer adverse outcomes between 1991 and 1995. In individuals whose total cholesterol at baseline was in the middle two quartiles (195-244 mg/dL), each 10-mg/dL increase in the 1988-to-1991 change in non-HDL-C was associated with an adjusted mortality odds ratio (OR) of 0.67 (95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.51-0.88). In individuals without cardiovascular disease at baseline, the adjusted OR for new physical disability was 0.79 (95% CI = 0.65-0.95) and for cognitive decline was 0.81 (95% CI = 0.67-0.98).
Conclusion: Increases in cholesterol over time have beneficial associations in some older adults. The role of cholesterol changes in the health of older individuals needs further exploration.

Randomized clinical trials in elderly individuals, subgroup analysis of data from broader-based clinical trials, and cohort studies in older adults have demonstrated that treatment of elderly adults with 3-hydroxy 3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors (statins) reduces the risk of major vascular events[1,2,3] and all-cause mortality.[4,5,6] This benefit of statin therapy is presumed to be the result of the lipid-lowering effect of statins, but many large prospective studies of older adults have found no statistically significant association between elevated levels of total serum cholesterol and all-cause mortality risk,[7,8,9] and several have found hypercholesterolemia to be protective against mortality in older individuals,[10] even after adjusting for serum albumin,[11] excluding individuals with low serum total cholesterol,[12] and excluding individuals who died within the first few years of cholesterol measurement.[11,12,13] With respect to the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) fraction of cholesterol, perhaps the main culprit in cardiovascular disease (CVD), Framingham analyses found an inverse association between serum LDL-C and all-cause mortality risk in those who were aged 66 and older at the time of cholesterol determination,[12] but other large cohort studies of older adults have found no statistically significant association between serum LDL-C and mortality risk, after adjusting for other risk factors.[13,14]

This contrast between the benefits of statin therapy and the questionable role of hypercholesterolemia as a marker of increased mortality risk in older individuals raises the possibility that the benefits of statin therapy result less from the effects of statins on serum cholesterol levels and more from their antiinflammatory, plaque-stabilizing, and other beneficial effects.[15,16] In fact, the benefits of statin therapy in clinical trials were independent of the LDL response to therapy,[1] were greater than that expected from the magnitude of LDL-C reduction,[17] and occurred faster than predicted from lipid-lowering alone.[18] Thus, the effects of changes in cholesterol levels in older adults are unclear.

Examining the health effects of recent change in serum cholesterol may resolve this lingering question about the role of lipid lowering in the care of older adults to some extent. The work reported here examines the association between changes in serum cholesterol over an initial 2.5-year period and health outcomes over the subsequent 4.5 years in a cohort of high-functioning elderly men and women.