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Can HDL Cholesterol Protect You from Artery Stiffness?

A team of cardiovascular disease researchers evaluated if they could predict how stiff your arteries are by measuring your HDL cholesterol.

Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading killers in the developed world, accounting for one in every three deaths in the United States.

One of the biggest predictors of vascular disease is arterial stiffness – a measure of how stiff or hard the arteries are. Part of the stiffening comes with age – an inevitable consequence of living.

With time the elastin fibers that keep our arteries flexible weaken and fracture, leading to a hardening of the arteries. But the other half of the stiffening equation comes from the buildup of fatty plaques and cholesterol in the artery walls, something that can be managed with diet and exercise.

Scientists have already differentiated between two different types of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol, a low-density lipoprotein that contributes to the buildup of fatty plaques in blood vessels, and HDL cholesterol, a high-density lipoprotein that helps extract the more dangerous LDL out of your blood.

Foods with higher quantities of HDL cholesterol such as avocados, chia seeds, and olive oil have already been endorsed by celebrities and bodybuilders alike.

But in reality, HDLs come in over 70 different types, so which ones do we actually need?

The Truth About HDL Cholesterols

HDLs encompass a wide range of lipoproteins with varying sizes, densities, and chemical compositions, and unfortunately, scientists have shown that they’re not all good for you.

To better understand which types of HDL cholesterol are the most beneficial in preventing arterial stiffness, researchers have broken down HDLs into two broad categories. HDL2-C contains the largest of the HDL lipoproteins, and HDL3-C includes the small and medium-sized HDL cholesterol.

In a paper published in the journal Lipids and Health Disease, researchers investigated which group of HDL cholesterol improved arterial stiffness by measuring HDL levels in 1,447 participants over a 4.8-year time period from 2007 to 2013.

Arterial stiffness was measured noninvasively using arterial pulse rates, where the stiffer the arteries are, the slower blood will be pumped through.

Which One is Better: HDL2-C or HDL3-C:?

Compiling the data collected from all participants across the 4.8 years, the researchers found that it was specifically HDL3-C which was associated with improved arterial health.

The higher the participant’s HDL3-C levels, the more flexible and healthier their arteries were.

HDL2-C however, did not seem to impact artery stiffness, leading the researchers to suspect that it must be one of the smaller to mid-sized HDLs that must be responsible for maintaining artery elasticity. The researchers are looking to further break down HDL3-Cs to elucidate which lipoprotein within that group is specifically involved.

Once that’s narrowed down, the researchers are hoping to use its levels to monitor a patient’s artery health and guide clinical intervention when necessary.

Written by Calvin J. Chan, B.Sc.

Reference: Wang, F., Wang, X., Ye, P., Cao, R., Zhang, Y., Qi, Y. and Zhao, Q. (2018). High-density lipoprotein 3 cholesterol is a predictive factor for arterial stiffness: a community-based 4.8-year prospective study. Lipids in Health and Disease. 17:5.

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