News / Health

Major Study Finds Most People With Cholesterol Go Untreated

Coordinator of WHO’s Chronic Diseases and Health promotion division, Dr. Shanthi Mendis (file photo)
Coordinator of WHO’s Chronic Diseases and Health promotion division, Dr. Shanthi Mendis (file photo)
Lisa Schlein

A major study published by the World Health Organization shows most people with high cholesterol levels are not getting the treatment they need.  This is the largest study ever undertaken, involving 147 million people in England, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Scotland, Thailand and the United States.   

The study finds a majority of people who have high cholesterol go untreated, which is adding to the growing epidemic of chronic diseases, such as heart attack and stroke.

For example, the data shows 78 percent of those who have high cholesterol in Thailand have not been diagnosed.  And, 53 percent of people in Japan have been diagnosed, but not treated.

Coordinator of WHO’s Chronic Diseases and Health promotion division, Dr. Shanthi Mendis, says high cholesterol now afflicts more people in poor countries than in rich countries.  And, this can be seen in the so-called treatment gap, which, she says would be much higher in developing countries than in the wealthier nations.

She says one reason is people in the poorer countries do not recognize they should get tested for blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar after age 40.

“Second, their health systems are either weak or accessing health systems is quite expensive in countries and it is not in all countries that access to health care is affordable," said Mendis. "Even in high-income countries there are large segments of people in some high income countries who do not have access to even essential services, for example these tests.”  

Doctors around the world say high cholesterol levels often lead to cardiovascular diseases which are the world’s biggest killers.  They claim more than 17 million lives every year.  That is around one-third of global deaths.  WHO says 80 percent of these deaths occur in the developing world.

Dr. Mendis says simple lifestyle changes such as avoiding tobacco use, regular physical activity and healthy diets can help prevent heart disease and stroke.  

She says medication to lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure may be necessary if the risk is very high.  But, she notes too many people are not diagnosed early enough to detect this.  

She says early diagnosis of cholesterol would be a very good buy.

“When I say a good buy, it gives you a good return for investment because if you do not do it, a significant number of these people will end up either with a heart attack or a stroke and that is going to be very costly, not only to the individual, but also to the society and governments," she said.

The study says cholesterol-lowering medication is widely available, highly effective and can play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease around the world.  The study’s authors say these drugs are relatively cheap.

But, Dr. Mendis notes a drug, which might cost $3.00 in a wealthy country, is simply not affordable for the millions of people around the world who live on less than $2.00 a day.

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