New service will ID high cholesterol risk

Julie Donnelly, Specialist Nurse Familial Hypercholesterolemia for the Northern Trust and Tracy McCullagh. (Submitted Picture).
Julie Donnelly, Specialist Nurse Familial Hypercholesterolemia for the Northern Trust and Tracy McCullagh. (Submitted Picture).

A new service to identify people who are unaware that they are at high risk of early heart disease has been launched by the Northern Trust (NHSCT).

Regionally about one in 500 people in Northern Ireland has Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (FH), a symptomless, inherited condition that means their cholesterol levels are higher than normal from birth, increasing the risk of early heart disease and premature death.

Familial Hypercholesterolaemia is caused by an abnormal gene and, despite it putting people at high risk of early heart disease, most of them don’t even know they have it. If left untreated, around 50% of males will develop heart disease by age 50 and approximately 30% of women by age 60.

The new service has been developed to actively identify all known cases of FH in the Northern Trust and offer follow-up testing to immediate family members. In the first year of this new service 80 people have had their DNA tested and five families have been identified as carrying the FH gene. In total 33 family members of these families were tested with 10 positive FH results.

Local woman Tracy McCullagh has witnessed first-hand the devastating effect that the condition can have on a family.

The 34-year-old, who was diagnosed with FH in 1997, says: “I was sent for testing with my brother when we were teenagers after we lost our mum at the young age of 39 to a sudden heart attack.

“We found out that we both have the condition and it was genetic. As a result our children have all been tested too. My daughter also has FH, my two sons do not.

“The medical attention I have received to date has been excellent. My hope for the future would be that medical advancement would result in the control of high cholesterol caused by this rogue gene”.