The many faces of LDL

Pam has an LDL cholesterol of 144 mg/dl.

To most people, this means that she has a mildly elevated LDL value. Many people would respond by cutting the saturated fat in their diet. Most physicians would concur and talk about prescribing a statin drug.

Let me tell you what an LDL cholesterol of 144 mg/dl means to me:

1) It could mean an LDL of all large particles (which is good) or an LDL of all small particles (which is very bad). Or, perhaps it's some combination of big and small. I can't tell which just by knowing that LDL is 144.

Small LDL responds to a diet reduced in processed carbohydrates and wheat flour; large LDL does not. Small LDL responds in an exagerrated way to niacin; large LDL does not. It makes a difference.

2) It could mean that, hidden within LDL, is lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a). Recall that Lp(a) is a high-risk genetic pattern that can provide the false appearance of high LDL cholesterol. If Pam were prescribed a statin drug, it would have little effect and little benefit. (See Red flags for Lipoprotein(a).)

Knowing that Pam has Lp(a) can point us in an entirely different direction than just LDL cholesterol. It might mean high-dose fish oil, a more serious approach to niacin, hormonal treatments like DHEA or testosterone. It might mean more attention to warning your children about the possibility that they, too, might share this genetic trait.

3) It could mean both small LDL and Lp(a) are present simultaneously, an especially dangerous combined pattern that is among the highest risks for heart disease known.

4) Because Pam's LDL of 144 mg/dl was not measured, but calculated, it means that it is subject to tremendous inaccuracy.

In my office, calculated LDL cholesterols can be inaccurate by 50 or 100 mg/dl--commonly. So Pam's LDL of 144 mg/dl could really be 70 mg/dl, or it could be 244 mg/dl. Once again, it's a big difference.

Just like The Three Faces of Eve, the 1957 film in which Joanne Woodward played the three wildly different sides of Eve's personality--the daytime Eve White, the fun-loving and daring Eve Black, and Jane--so can LDL assume several different faces, all with different personalities, different implications.

Accepting LDL cholesterol as LDL cholesterol is a fool's game. It is only a starting point, nothing more. Accepting a statin drug based on LDL is, likewise, a trap fraught with uncertainty, the potential for limited or ineffective results, the price being your heart and health.