A couple of years ago I was fortunate to attend the HDL workshop that followed the ATVB council conference, which was held in San Francisco. The workshop’s main focus was to discuss and debate high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or what is commonly known as “the good cholesterol,” and how it influences heart disease.
You may ask, “HDL-cholesterol is good for your heart, so why dedicate two days to discuss what is already know?!” Here is where it gets interesting. While we look forward to lab results showing high HDL-cholesterol levels and low levels of LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol) as an indication of reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, the actual answer to the benefits of HDL for cardiovascular disease is far from a simple yes or no. Yes, having high HDL-cholesterol indeed reduces the risk of heart disease, but this does not hold true for patients with metabolic conditions like diabetes, or chronic inflammation like chronic kidney disease. In fact, multiple clinical studies that aimed at increasing levels of HDL-cholesterol have failed to reduce cardiovascular events. It is now becoming evident that just increasing the quantity of HDL-cholesterol alone is not sufficient to ensure cardiovascular free events.
Scientists are discovering that there is more to HDL-cholesterol than its concentration. The size of these HDL molecules, their composition, and their ability to remove lipids from the blood stream for excretion are more indicative of HDL protective function. In addition, scientists are also finding that HDL has other compelling properties that can lower cardiovascular risk indirectly. HDL can reduce inflammation, protects from cell death and promotes wound healing. HDL also had antithrombotic effects (prevents blood clots formation), all of which would decrease the possibility of a cardiovascular incident.
So why not measure for the functionality of HDL rather than its mere concentration to determine one’s risk for cardiovascular disease? This was a topic for discussion at the HDL workshop. The methods used to measure HDL functionality are far from being standardized for use in clinical settings. More work is needed to find techniques that can be used routinely and reliably across clinical laboratories.
It is worth to note that the increase in HDL-cholesterol levels that are triggered by life style changes: healthy diets and physical exercise, does in fact correlate with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers think life style change does not only increase HDL-cholesterol but also has an effect on its function and on other metabolic parameters. So until science figures a more clinically feasible way to measure HDL functionality, it would still be a good practice to continue whatever healthy diet and exercise regimen you are on and to aim to keep those HDL-cholesterol numbers high and those LDL-cholesterol numbers low.
Dalia Gaddis is a postdoctoral fellow at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology. She has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. She is currently working on understanding the interactions between the immune system and atherosclerosis development.