(This article is highly recommended to read whole, we just selected few sections…)
LDL cholesterol levels and LDL particle number are often concordant (i.e. when one is high, the other is high, and vice versa), and this is probably why there is an association between LDL cholesterol and heart disease in observational studies. The elevated LDL cholesterol was more of a proxy marker for elevated LDL particle number in these cases. But here’s the kicker: they can also be discordant. In layperson’s terms, it’s possible to have normal or even low cholesterol, but a high number of LDL particles. (1) If this person only has their cholesterol measured, and not their particle number, they will be falsely led to believe they’re at low risk for heart disease. Even worse, the patients that are the most likely to present with this pattern are among the highest risk patients: those with metabolic syndrome or full-fledged type 2 diabetes. The more components of the metabolic syndrome that are present—such as abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, high triglycerides and low HDL—the more likely it is that LDL particle number will be elevated. (2)
On the other hand, patients with high LDL cholesterol (LDL-C) and low LDL particle number (LDL-P) are not at high risk of heart disease. In fact, studies suggest they’re at even lower risk than patients with low LDL-C and low LDL-P. (3) Yet they will often be treated with statin drugs or other cholesterol lowering medications, because the clinician only looked at LDL-C and failed to measure LDL particle number. This is a concern for two reasons. First, statin drugs aren’t harmless. (I’ll go into more detail on this in the third post of the series.) Second, studies suggest that low cholesterol can increase the risk of death, especially in women and the elderly.
In one study of over 52,000 Norwegians, researchers found that women with total cholesterol levels below 195 mg/dL had a higher risk of death than women with cholesterol levels above that cut-off. (4) And a study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that people over 70 years of age with total cholesterol levels below 160 mg/dL had twice the risk of death than those with cholesterol levels between 160-199 mg/dL. (5) Low cholesterol is also associated with increased risk of disease—especially mental health and brain disorders.
Heart disease is a complex, multifactorial process. The likelihood that we’ll have a heart attack depends on numerous factors, including genetics, diet, lifestyle and living environment. The purpose of this article is not to suggest that LDL-P is the only risk factor that matters, or that other risk factors shouldn’t be taken into consideration. It is simply to point out that existing evidence suggests that LDL-P is a much better predictor of heart disease risk than LDL or total cholesterol, and that it appears to be one of the better markers available to us now.