Study finds two thirds of over-50s living with high cholesterol 

A new study that aims to revolutionise healthcare in the UK has shown that it’s vital for 50-59 age group to get their cholesterol and blood pressure levels checked.

Two-thirds of people in their 50s have high cholesterol, a study of more than 200,000 participants across the UK has shown.  

Our Future Health found that 67% of people they studied aged between 50 and 59 had high cholesterol – and women were more likely than men to be living with it. It also measured blood pressure and found that half of people over 80 had hypertension (high blood pressure).

Statistics released today cover the first nine months of the ongoing, in-depth study of the nation’s health, which aims to reach five million people to help the UK move towards a model of early detection and intervention of common chronic diseases.

Woman having blood pressure taken by female doctorCredit: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images
The study also found that half of people over 80 had high blood pressure

‘The silent killer’

Dr Raghib Ali, Chief Medical Officer at Our Future Health, told Saga Exceptional that people in their fifties are important to the research because they may have high blood pressure and cholesterol, but it could be going undetected.

“Hypertension and high cholesterol are two key risk factors for heart attacks and strokes and we know from this and previous studies that people in their fifties aren’t aware if they have them,” he said. 

“It’s described as ‘the silent killer’ because you don’t usually have symptoms until it’s too late, which is why it’s so important for the over 50s to make sure they have regular checks of both blood pressure and cholesterol.”

We need cholesterol, but not too much

Lowering your cholesterol level can cut your risk of a heart attack or stroke, according to NHS advice. High blood pressure is associated with 50% of heart attacks and strokes, the British Heart Foundation reports. 

Both high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels are symptom-free, so the only way to find out if you have them is to get tested.

Cholesterol is a natural fatty substance in the blood that’s produced in the liver. We need some of it to keep our cells healthy, but if too much builds up in the arteries then you’re more at risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

“The NHS Health Check has been set up specifically for that purpose. By taking part in the health check, your GP can prescribe a statin for high cholesterol or medication for high blood pressure, as well as advising you on lifestyle changes,” added Ali.

He added that while the risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol increases with each decade, by the time patients are in their sixties they might have been diagnosed and have often started on treatment to reduce the effect of the conditions – which is why the results are higher in the 50 to 59 age group.

“Early prevention is key and high cholesterol and blood pressure is still silent in the 50-59 age group – particularly because post-Covid, many people haven’t been having such regular check-ups. Intervening in your 50s is much better than later, but it’s certainly never too late, even at 100,” he said.

Want to take part in the study?

Ali also recommended online resources including British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, Stroke Association and the NHS website for more information on how to lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.

He now hopes to recruit five million people to the study, which will also look at how to prevent dementia and sight loss in the future.

“We’re in the early stages, but the real value will come in the longer term. If five million people sign up, we’ll be able to look at every common chronic disease in every part of the UK,” he said. 

“More importantly, we’ll give individuals who take part feedback on their risk of many of these diseases so they can take the appropriate action. The whole point is to move from our current model of healthcare, which is treatment of disease at a late stage, to prevention and early detection.”

If you’re interested in taking part in Our Future Health you can sign up today.

Want to make small, sustainable healthy changes?

Although many of us are aware that we need to make healthy changes, putting that into practice is more difficult. 

“One of the things I’ve seen over decades is that it’s not easy for people to change behaviours, and that’s why we have increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, for example,” says Ali. “There are things you can change in your diet to reduce high blood pressure, such as eating less salt and more fruit and veg, and changing the types of food you eat if you have high cholesterol.

“Every week there’ll be a story about diet and health and the messaging isn’t always consistent. Certainly eating less overall is helpful as many of us eat more than we need to. Eating more fruit and vegetables is helpful, as well as more nuts and less processed food because it tends to have a higher salt and sugar content.”

Ali recommends smaller, sustainable changes, rather than a complete overhaul of diet and exercise that’s harder to maintain, such as:

  • Walking to the next bus stop
  • Climbing the stairs, rather than taking the lift
  • Regular housework and try to get fit with gardening
  • A 10-minute brisk walk every day (which is better than trying to maintain an hour and stopping after three days)
  • Small, continuous changes in your diet are more sustainable and will have a bigger impact
  • Tobacco is never helpful
  • Moderate your alcohol intake
  • One of the ways to avoid loneliness and look after your mental health is to join group activities

“Taking part in activities that help with your mental health is important for all diseases, including heart attacks and strokes,” adds Ali. “I know loneliness is a particular issue in your 70s, but even before that, having regular contact with people helps.”

The British Heart Foundation has more advice and practical tips on how to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier

Updated:

Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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