Patients seek clarity on cholesterol

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: August 24th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Most adults know their cholesterol levels are one important barometer of heart health and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life. But unlike the simple set of numbers used to describe blood pressure, the descriptions used for cholesterol levels are often clogged with terms like triglycerides [tri-glih-sir-ides] and H-D-L. A recent study indicates this often confusing terminology has some patients thinking, “Give it to me straight, doc.”

Researchers at Brown University Medical School surveyed fifty adults. The topic? The confounding language some doctors use to relay cholesterol test results. For many study participants, words and phrases like L-D-L and “good cholesterol” versus “bad cholesterol” led to confusion, not clarity. The idea that forms of cholesterol could be good or bad was confusing enough, not to mention that some health-care providers often use complex probability estimates to link a patient’s cholesterol readings to their risk for future heart trouble.

Researchers showed study participants three kinds of visual aids that illustrated heart risk for a hypothetical patient. Two used complex graphs to show the probability of adverse heart events ten years down the road. But the participants preferred the third descriptor, which assigned a “heart age” to the patient. The fictional forty-two-year-old patient’s high cholesterol, for example, put his heart age at seventy years.

Such a blunt rendering of one’s heart health could be distressing for some. But most thought this way of discussing cholesterol results could serve as a wakeup call… and by far be the easiest to grasp.