September 28, 1995
Web posted at: 1:40 a.m. EDT
From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Remember when "cholesterol" sounded obscure -- like "vegetarian"? Now, many of us know our "numbers" about as well as our addresses. And thanks in part to a decade-long government awareness campaign, the average numbers have dropped, along with deaths from heart disease. Still, much like the old margarine/butter controversy, scientists continue to debate the evils of hyperlipidemia -- high cholesterol.
Atlanta resident Neil Wilson started watching his cholesterol level last spring after he learned it was 280, some 80 points higher than the "desirable" cutoff. Wilson switched to a lower fat diet and within four months his cholesterol had dropped 50 points while his weight plummeted 25 pounds.
In addition to trimming his waistline, Wilson said he thinks the low-fat life "will help me as far as keeping my heart strong."
Wilson isn't the only believer. In the past 30 years, the average American's cholesterol level has fallen 15 points. Death rates from heart disease also have decreased -- from 216 deaths per 100,000 in 1962 to 95 per 100,000 in 1992.
"Now," said Dr. Scott Grundy of the American Heart Association, think the evidence is overwhelming that controlling cholesterol is important."
But some scientists think the government's cholesterol education campaign has been misplaced, including one who regularly fries up bacon and eggs for breakfast.
"The campaign to lower cholesterol I think clearly is wrong," said Dr. Jerome Sullivan, director of clinical pathology at the Veterans Administration medical center in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sullivan believes that it is excess iron rather than high cholesterol that is the villain. His theory is that men may be able to reduce their risk for heart disease by regularly giving blood to lower iron stores.
Sullivan thinks too much iron can transform normal cholesterol into the bad kind (known as LDL) and can damage the heart muscle. "It's quite clear that iron participates in a number of very toxic reactions in the body," he said. "And it cooperates with oxygen to cause free radical reactions."
Sullivan notes that women generally seem to be protected from heart disease until they enter menopause, which is when they stop losing iron during their monthly menstrual periods.
But the Heart Association says the case against iron is still a theory.
"We don't have definite evidence that that represents a problem," Grundy said. "And if you get too low in iron, then you become anemic." For now, "we would like everybody to maintain the proper iron stores, certainly not excessive amounts," he said.
So don't can the spinach just yet. After all, the iron-rich vegetable didn't do Popeye any harm. For a healthy heart, most experts still recommend a good dose of common sense: Quit smoking, control your blood pressure, watch your weight, and, yes, keep those cholesterol numbers in line.
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