Updated: May 28, 2020
Written by Todd Freitag
September is National Cholesterol Education Month, a good time to get your blood cholesterol checked and take steps make any necessary lifestyle changes. Children, young adults and older Americans can have high cholesterol. Learn how to prevent high cholesterol and know what your cholesterol levels mean.
National Cholesterol Education Month is also a good time to learn about lipid profiles and about food and lifestyle choices that help you reach personal cholesterol goals before the holiday season hits us when we typically consume higher fat content food and become less active. More than 102 million American Adults (20 years or older) have total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dL, which is above healthy levels. More than 35 million of these people have levels of 240 mg/dL or higher, which puts them at high risk for heart disease.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in many of the foods that we eat and also in our body’s cells. Our bodies need some cholesterol to function normally and can make all the cholesterol they need. Cholesterol is used to make hormones and vitamin D. It also plays a role in digestion. Too much cholesterol can build up in your arteries. After a while, these deposits narrow your arteries, putting you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
How do you know if your cholesterol is high?
High cholesterol usually doesn’t have any symptoms. As a result, many people do not know that their cholesterol levels are too high. However, doctors can do a simple blood test to check your cholesterol. High cholesterol can be controlled through lifestyle changes or if it is not enough, through medications.
It’s important to check your cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Many things may increase your risk for high cholesterol, including:
Genetics: High cholesterol runs in some families.
Age: As we age, our cholesterol levels rise.
Medicines: Certain drugs can elevate cholesterol levels.
Obesity: Individuals with overweight or obese body mass indices are at greater risk for high cholesterol.
Diet: Consuming high quantities of saturated and trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels.
Inactivity: Activity helps to elevate HDL cholesterol. Lack of activity has the reverse effect — it increases LDL cholesterol.
Smoking: Tobacco products decrease HDL and increase LDL. The link between smoking and high cholesterol is greater for women.
How often should you have your cholesterol checked?
It is recommended to have your cholesterol checked at least every four years but it doesn’t hurt to have it checked regularly as cholesterol can change with little time. Preventive guidelines for cholesterol screening among young adults differ, but experts agree on the need to screen young adults who have other risk factors for coronary heart disease: obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and family history
Less than half of young adults who have these risk factors don’t get cholesterol screening even though up to a quarter of them have elevated cholesterol.
A simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile can measure your total cholesterol levels, including LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol), HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol), and triglycerides.
The following chart shows optimal lipid levels for adults:
Cholesterol Levels Desirable
Total cholesterol Less than 170 mg/dL
Low LDL (“bad”) cholesterol Less than 110 mg/dL
High HDL (“good”) cholesterol 35 mg/dL or higher
Triglycerides Less than 150 mg/dL
What are Triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, particularly from high-carbohydrate foods, you may have high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia).
Can children and adolescents have high cholesterol?
Yes. High cholesterol can develop in early childhood and adolescence, and your risk increases as your weight increases. In the United States, more than one-fifth (20%) of youth aged 12–19 years have at least one abnormal lipid level. It is important for children over 2 years of age to have their cholesterol checked, if they are overweight/obese, have a family history of high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or certain chronic condition (chronic kidney disease, chronic inflammatory diseases, congenital heart disease, and childhood cancer survivorship.
If you have high cholesterol, what can you do to lower it?
Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat your high cholesterol. In addition, you can lower your cholesterol levels through lifestyle changes:
Foods such as legumes, avocados, nuts, fatty fish, whole grains, fruits and berries, dark chocolate and cocoa, garlic, soy foods, vegetables, dark leafy greens, and extra virgin olive oil
For adults, getting at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week. For those aged 6-17, getting 1 hour or more of physical activity each day.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Don’t smoke or quit if you do.