CHICAGO, DEC. 25 -- Doctors' warnings about the dangers of high cholesterol levels appear to have found a wider audience among the public than fellow practitioners, a survey indicates.

Overall, both groups demonstrated a high awareness of the benefits of lowering cholesterol, according to a report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

The percentage of physicians who said they think that reducing high cholesterol levels would have "a large effect" on preventing heart diseases increased dramatically from 1983 to 1986.

But even so, it lags behind the public's attitude -- 64 percent compared with 72 percent.

"I think public opinion tends to be more volatile . . . . Physicians and scientists tend to be much more conservative and want to examine evidence before changing their opinions," said Janet Wittes, a statistician involved in the survey.

The study was based on random-sample nationwide telephone surveys of the public and cardiologists, internists and family practice doctors in 1983 and 1986.

Researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda found a dramatic change in the doctors' attitudes from 1983, when only 39 percent of the physicians thought it was valuable to reduce high cholesterol levels.

The public's awareness of the dangers of high cholesterol was much higher than doctors' in 1983, when 64 percent of the public believed reducing high cholesterol helped reduce heart disease, the study said.

The survey also found that the public and doctors took steps to battle high cholesterol in 1986. Doctors often recommend restricted diets and drug therapy at earlier stages for patients with high cholesterol readings, the 1986 survey found.

Wittes and Beth Schucker, the main researcher, attributed the change in doctors' attitudes to a 1984 report that found reducing blood cholesterol levels decreased the risk of developing coronary heart disease.

A subsequent National Institutes of Health conference concluded that most adults have undesirably high cholesterol levels and should take steps to reduce them, the researchers noted.

"We found that in 1983 physicians were not all that convinced about the benefit of lowering cholesterol levels in preventing heart disease," Schucker said.

The 1983 and 1986 surveys of the general public were based on interviews with about 4,000 people and had a margin of sampling error of 1.7 percentage points, the report said. The doctors' surveys had a 5 percentage point margin and were based on interviews with 1,610 cardiologists, internists and family practice doctors in 1983 and 1,277 in 1986, the study said.

Forty-six percent of the public said they had their cholesterol checked in 1986, up from 35 percent in 1983; and 23 percent reported changing their diets specifically to lower their blood cholesterol level, compared with 14 percent in 1983.