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Cholesterol-lowering drugs should not be prescribed for healthy elderly people unless they have real signs of vascular disease or a family history that puts them at risk of dying from heart disease.

That's the conclusion of two physicians at the University of California at San Francisco, who say "elderly people in their late 70s and beyond generally should not be screened or treated for high blood cholesterol."UCSF researchers Stephen B. Hulley and Thomas B. Newman say their studies of people whose average age was 79 showed "no association between cholesterol levels and coronary heart disease or death."

Respected studies like the Framingham Heart Study find the link between cholesterol and heart disease weakens steadily with age, virtually disappearing by about 80.

Despite the findings, many doctors are applying cholesterol treatment guidelines for middle-aged people to the elderly. Using these rules, half of all women 65 to 74 qualify for intensive anti-cholesterol diet and drug regimes, Hulley and Newman said.

Aggressive cholesterol treatment of the aged should be undertaken only after counseling them on the uncertain benefits and risks, they said.