Why You Should Be Concerned About Having High Cholesterol (2023)

High cholesterol can harm your health. It's important to keep track of your cholesterol levels because you may not have any symptoms until a serious problem occurs—like a heart attack or a stroke.

This article explains the causes of high cholesterol. It also discusses how to treat and prevent it.

Why You Should Be Concerned About Having High Cholesterol (1)

Overview

You need cholesterol to produce hormones, digest food, and make vitamin D.

Your body has two main types of cholesterol: LDL and HDL.

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is sometimes called "bad cholesterol" because high LDL levels can contribute to cholesterol buildup in the arteries, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • High-density lipoprotein or HDL is often known as "good cholesterol" because it works like a cleanup crew in the bloodstream. It ferries excess cholesterol from the tissues back to the liver, where it is broken down. Higher HDL levels are good for the heart.

Your body also has other types of cholesterol in small amounts.

Your healthcare professional can measure your total cholesterol level, as well as individual types.

High cholesterol is defined as a total cholesterol level above 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), The target level for a healthy adult is below 200 mg/dL. It's much more common to have high levels than it is to have very low levels.

Experts recommend that healthy adults with no known history of high cholesterol have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years. You may need to have it checked more often if you are older than 65 or have certain health conditions.

A high total cholesterol level or a high LDL level means a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, responsible for one out of every four deaths. Nearly 659,000 people die of heart disease each year.

Diagnosis

A lipid profile test measures several types of cholesterol. The simplest is total cholesterol, which includes the combined levels of LDL, HDL, and other types such as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL).

The lipid profile also gives a detailed breakdown of cholesterol levels by lipid (fat) type: LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. Triglycerides are the main type of fat that circulates in your blood. High levels of triglycerides are linked to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

According to current guidelines, target levels are:

  • LDL: Levels below 100 mg/dL for most adults, though levels above 70 mg/dL may be too high for people with diabetes, a prior history of heart disease, or high risk of heart disease
  • HDL: Levels above 40 mg/dL for males, levels above 50 mg/dL for females
  • Triglycerides: Levels below 150 mg/dL

If you've already had a lipid test and you're not sure what the numbers mean, you can use our lipid test analyzer. Type your test results into the tool below. It can help you understand what your levels may mean for your health, so you can follow up with your healthcare professional if needed.

Causes

Your genes, your diet, and how much you exercise can all influence your cholesterol levels.

  • Diet: High-fat, processed foods can raise your LDL levels. So can obesity. Excess body fat can increase the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.
  • Lack of exercise: Not getting enough physical activity can raise your LDL level. It can also cause your HDL level to be too low.
  • Genetics: Sometimes the way your body naturally processes fat and cholesterol can cause your levels to be unhealthy.
  • Age: Males over 45 years of age and females over 55 years of age often have high cholesterol levels because the body doesn't process cholesterol as well as you get older.

Before menopause, females have added protection from estrogen, an advantage that decreases after menopause, leading to the potential for higher cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol can harm young people, too. Researchers have found that fatty plaques of cholesterol can begin forming before adulthood. They can take up space in your blood vessels. When blood vessels are too narrow, you're at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

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About 1 in every 200-500 people have a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. This genetic condition can boost cholesterol levels to twice the normal level or even higher.

Treatment

Bringing your cholesterol level into a healthy range is important for heart health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high total cholesterol levels are especially dangerous for people who smoke or have a family history of heart disease.

High cholesterol can also make some health conditions worse, including:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

In most cases, changes in diet and increased exercise are the first steps for lowering high cholesterol levels. Health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Other strategies include avoiding foods high in saturated fats and maintaining a healthy weight.

Diet

Roughly 80% of the cholesterol in your blood is produced by your liver and intestines. The rest comes from your diet. It's important to avoid fried foods, foods high in saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates if you have high cholesterol, such as:

  • Fatty meats, particularly red meat
  • Whole-fat dairy products
  • Processed foods
  • White bread
  • White potatoes
  • White rice
  • Highly processed sugars or flours

Foods proven to reduce cholesterol, on the other hand, include:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon
  • Walnuts and other nuts
  • Oatmeal
  • Soluble fibers such as psyllium
  • Foods fortified with plant sterols or stanols

Foods You Should Be Eating to Boost HDL and Lower LDL Cholesterol

Medications

If lifestyle changes don't lower your levels enough, your healthcare provider may prescribe a type of drug called statins. They help reduce LDL and triglyceride levels and increase HDL levels.

Statins are the most widely prescribed class of cholesterol-lowering drugs. They limit the liver's ability to make cholesterol.

These are examples of statin medications:

  • Lipitor (atorvastatin)
  • Zocor (simvastatin)
  • Mevacor (lovastatin)
  • Lescol (fluvastatin)
  • Crestor (rosuvastatin)
  • Pravachol (pravastatin)

In addition to statins, some people with high cholesterol are also prescribed other cholesterol-lowering medications such as PCSK9 inhibitors like Praluent (alirocumab), Repatha (evolocumab), and Leqvio (inclisiran); fibrates such as Antara (fenofibrate) and Lopid (gemfibrozil); or bile acid sequestrants like Welchol (colesevelam) and Colestid (colestipol).

The Benefits and Risks of Cholesterol Medication

Summary

Your body needs cholesterol to carry out important functions. But if your total or LDL cholesterol levels are too high, you're at risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health problems.

A blood test can tell you how high your levels are. Aim for an LDL level under 100 mg/dL and an HDL level 40 mg/dL or higher. Your triglyceride level should be under 150 mg/dL.

If your test shows that you need to bring these numbers down, try to get 150 minutes of exercise each week. You can also try cutting out high-fat, highly processed foods. Your healthcare provider may recommend medication if these steps aren't effective enough.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a high cholesterol level?

    A total cholesterol level of 240 mg/dL or above is high. A normal cholesterol level is under 200 mg/dL. Between 200 mg/dL and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline high.

  • How can you lower cholesterol levels naturally?

    Dietary changes can help you to lower high cholesterol naturally. Limit the amount of saturated fat and trans fat that you eat. Add in more foods that help lower cholesterol, such as oatmeal, fatty fish, nuts,avocados, and olive oil.

    Supplements that may help lower high cholesterol include berberine, fish oil, ground flaxseed, garlic, green tea extract, niacin, and plant stanols and sterols.

  • What type of medications lower cholesterol?

    Statins are the first-line medications used to lower cholesterol levels. They work by lowering LDL and triglyceride levels while also raising HDL levels. Common statins you may be prescribed for treating high cholesterol include Lipitor, Zocor, or Crestor.

    If statins alone are not lowering your LDL level enough, you may want to ask your healthcare provider about an injectable treatment called Leqvio (inclisiran), which has been approved as an adjunct therapy.

  • What are the side effects of statin drugs?

    Statins can cause several uncomfortable side effects. Myalgia is the most common side effect, better known as muscle aches and pains. Statins can also cause altered liver enzymes and increase the risk of diabetes in some people.

    If you take a statin and experience side effects, ask your doctor if switching to a different statin may help. People who experience side effects on one type of statin may not have side effects on a different one.

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14 Sources

(Video) Dr. David Diamond - 'Should You Be Concerned About High LDL-Cholesterol on a Low Carb Diet?'

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. High cholesterol.

  2. MedlinePlus. High blood cholesterol levels.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heart disease facts.

  4. MedlinePlus. Cholesterol levels: what you need to know.

  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Overweight and obesity.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. LDL cholesterol and heart health.

  7. Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation. Surprising familial hypercholesterolemia statistics.

  8. American Heart Association. Lifestyle changes for heart attack prevention.

  9. Harvard Health Publishing. How it's made: cholesterol production in the body.

  10. Harvard Health Publishing. 11 foods that lower cholesterol.

  11. American Heart Association. Cholesterol medications.

  12. Mayo Clinic. Cholesterol-lowering supplements may be helpful.

  13. Novartis. FDA approves Novartis Leqvio (inclisiran), first-in-class siRNA to lower cholesterol and keep it low with two doses a year.

  14. Ramkumar S, Raghunath A, Raghunath S. Statin therapy: review of safety and potential side effects. Acta Cardiol Sin. 2016;32(6):631-639. doi:10.6515/acs20160611a

Additional Reading

FAQs

Why should you be concerned about cholesterol? ›

Too much cholesterol in your body means that you have an increased risk of getting cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease. If you have too much cholesterol in your body, the cholesterol can build up inside the walls of the arteries that carry blood to your heart.

When should I be concerned about cholesterol? ›

The borderline high range is 170–199 mg/dl, and a reading of 200 mg/dl or over is high. LDL cholesterol levels should be under 110 mg/dl. The borderline high range is 110–129 mg/dl, and any reading over 130 mg/dl is high.

Why do I have high cholesterol when I'm healthy? ›

Why is my cholesterol high if I eat healthy and exercise? Even if you eat right and exercise, you can still have high cholesterol if you have inherited a genetic form of high cholesterol from your parents called familial hypercholesterolemia.

Is high cholesterol really a concern? ›

Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries.

How do you feel when you have high cholesterol? ›

With this heart condition, excess LDL builds up as plaque in your heart's small arteries, causing them to narrow and stiffen. This reduces blood flow, which can make you feel tired or short of breath and cause chest pain, notes the NHLBI.

Can you be healthy with high cholesterol? ›

We all need some cholesterol in our blood to stay healthy, but too much can lead to serious health problems such as heart attacks and strokes. Anyone can have high cholesterol, even if you are young, slim, eat well and exercise. That's because high cholesterol can be caused by different things, including your genes.

What is normal cholesterol level by age? ›

What are normal levels of cholesterol?
Age and sexTotal cholesterolHDL cholesterol
Age and sexTotal cholesterolHDL cholesterol
People aged 19 years and youngerTotal cholesterolLess than 120 mg/dL
Men aged 20 years and olderTotal cholesterolLess than 130 mg/dL
Women aged 20 years and olderTotal cholesterolLess than 130 mg/dL
Jul 31, 2020

Does stress cause high cholesterol? ›

Constant stress is another story. If it's nonstop and lasts for a long time, your stress hormones remain at high levels and put a dangerous strain on your heart and other parts of your body. High levels of cortisol from chronic or long-term stress can cause high blood cholesterol, along with other heart disease risks.

Does exercise improve cholesterol? ›

Exercise can improve cholesterol. Moderate physical activity can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol. With your doctor's OK, work up to at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week or vigorous aerobic activity for 20 minutes three times a week.

Can you live long with high cholesterol? ›

Many people who have high cholesterol die from complications of heart disease before reaching an advanced age. Those who live into their 70s or 80s despite high cholesterol might have other factors that increased their longevity.

Does exercise Lower cholesterol? ›

How does exercise improve cholesterol levels? Exercise works to eliminate the dangerous, fatty LDL cholesterol by increasing HDL cholesterol. Losing weight also increases HDL.

What happens if you ignore high cholesterol? ›

When the buildup of plaque, which can be due to high cholesterol, prevents the healthy circulation of blood in your arms and legs, you may develop peripheral artery disease. Peripheral artery disease can result in sores that won't heal, infections, and tissue death, which can necessitate amputation.

Does fasting raise cholesterol? ›

Regular fasting can decrease your low-density lipoprotein, or "bad," cholesterol. It's also thought that fasting can improve the way your body metabolizes sugar. This can reduce your risk of gaining weight and developing diabetes, which are both risk factors for heart disease.

Who is most at risk for high cholesterol? ›

Unhealthy levels of cholesterol can affect people of all ages, even young children. However, high cholesterol is most commonly diagnosed in people between ages 40 and 59. As you get older, your body's metabolism changes. Your liver does not remove “bad” LDL cholesterol as well as it did when you were young.

Does cholesterol cause leg pain? ›

When the arteries of your legs are clogged, a sufficient amount of oxygen-rich blood does not reach your lower part. It can make your leg feel heavy and tired. Most people with high cholesterol levels complain about burning pain in the lower limbs. One may feel pain in any part of the leg like thighs or calves.

Can high cholesterol make your joints hurt? ›

In a world-first study, a research team at The Prince Charles Hospital have discovered a link between high cholesterol levels and joint damage (arthritis).

Do high cholesterol make you dizzy? ›

“Say you have plaque buildup or cholesterol in your carotid arteries and not enough blood flow, or if you have narrowing of certain heart valves, or if you have arrhythmias,” Dr. Laffin says, “these can lead to what some people would call dizziness, but is probably more appropriately termed lightheadedness.”

Does sugar raise cholesterol? ›

When you eat too much sugar, your liver makes more LDL while lowering the amount of HDL in your body. The extra calories from a sugary diet also leads to more of something called triglycerides, a type of blood fat that plays a role in your cholesterol health.

What medications can cause high cholesterol? ›

Summary. There are many drugs that can affect your cholesterol levels. Some can raise your "bad" LDL cholesterol, decrease your "good" HDL cholesterol, or both. These include medications like beta blockers, prednisone, amiodarone, cyclosporine, anabolic steroids, HIV protease inhibitors, and diuretics.

What is normal cholesterol for a 70 year old? ›

40 – 49 mg/dL for men and 50 – 59 mg/dL for women is better. 60 mg/dL and higher is best.

What is a good cholesterol level for a 70 year old woman? ›

A normal total cholesterol level for adults without heart disease is less than 200 mg/dL.

Can lack of sleep cause high cholesterol? ›

Too Little Sleep

Sleep deprivation or staying up all night may make cholesterol levels go up, too. In one study, sleep-deprived mice had higher blood cholesterol and more cholesterol buildup in their livers.

What can cause a sudden spike in cholesterol? ›

What causes high cholesterol?
  • an unhealthy diet – in particular, eating high levels of saturated fat.
  • smoking – a chemical called acrolin, found in cigarettes, stops HDL transporting cholesterol from fatty deposits to the liver, leading to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
May 9, 2022

How quickly can cholesterol change? ›

Cholesterol-lowering drugs usually produce a change in LDL within 6 to 8 weeks. It is possible for lifestyle changes to change cholesterol levels within weeks. However, it may take longer, usually about 3 months — sometimes more.

Does walking reduce cholesterol? ›

1. Walking raises your “good” cholesterol and lowers your “bad” cholesterol. A brisk 30-minute walk three times per week is enough to raise your “good” cholesterol (HDL) and lower your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) a few points. This amount of exercise, even without weight loss, is shown to improve your cholesterol levels.

What is the fastest way to get rid of cholesterol? ›

How To Reduce Cholesterol Quickly
  1. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. ...
  2. Be mindful of fat intake. ...
  3. Eat more plant sources of protein. ...
  4. Eat fewer refined grains, such as white flour. ...
  5. Get moving.
Apr 21, 2022

Do eggs raise cholesterol? ›

Answer From Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D. Chicken eggs are an affordable source of protein and other nutrients. They're also naturally high in cholesterol. But the cholesterol in eggs doesn't seem to raise cholesterol levels the way some other foods, such as those high in trans fats and saturated fats, do.

What is the death rate for high cholesterol? ›

Overall, raised cholesterol is estimated to cause 2.6 million deaths (4.5% of total) and 29.7 million DALYS, or 2% of total DALYS. Raised total cholesterol is a major cause of disease burden in both the developed and developing world as a risk factor for ischemic heart disease and stroke.

Can you eat chicken with high cholesterol? ›

If you have high cholesterol, you should talk with your doctor about what you eat, including meat. There are good, lean choices. For example, you can consider chicken or turkey breasts without skin; pork tenderloin; or beef round, sirloin, or tenderloin. Avoid highly processed meats (bacon, ham, lunchmeat, etc.).

How can I check my cholesterol at home? ›

To use a cholesterol home test kit, you first prick your finger with the lancet. Next, you place the blood droplet on the test strip. The cholesterol home test strip has special chemicals that change colors after a few minutes. You then match the final color against a color guide that's included with the kit.

Does bread raise cholesterol? ›

Food items made from refined grains or flour (maida) contain refined carbohydrates, which may have a negative effect on your good cholesterol (HDL) levels. Avoid consuming products like white bread or pasta.

Can you be healthy with high cholesterol? ›

We all need some cholesterol in our blood to stay healthy, but too much can lead to serious health problems such as heart attacks and strokes. Anyone can have high cholesterol, even if you are young, slim, eat well and exercise. That's because high cholesterol can be caused by different things, including your genes.

Should I care about cholesterol? ›

It's not only a major signpost for your overall health, but it can lead to heart attack or stroke. Dr. Tom Miller from University of Utah Health explains what cholesterol is, breaks down the numbers, and tells you why it matters to your and your loved ones' health.

What foods cause high cholesterol? ›

Unhealthy fats
  • processed or deli-style meats (such as ham, bacon and salami)
  • deep fried fast foods.
  • processed foods (such as biscuits and pastries)
  • takeaway foods (such as hamburgers and pizza)
  • fat on meat and skin on chicken.
  • ghee, lard and copha.
  • coconut oil.

Can emotional stress cause high cholesterol? ›

Is stress linked to high cholesterol? The short is yes. Feeling under pressure for a long time can raise your risk of high cholesterol and even heart disease. But you can take steps to get your stress under control and protect your heart.

Can you live long with high cholesterol? ›

Many people who have high cholesterol die from complications of heart disease before reaching an advanced age. Those who live into their 70s or 80s despite high cholesterol might have other factors that increased their longevity.

Does fasting raise cholesterol? ›

Regular fasting can decrease your low-density lipoprotein, or "bad," cholesterol. It's also thought that fasting can improve the way your body metabolizes sugar. This can reduce your risk of gaining weight and developing diabetes, which are both risk factors for heart disease.

Do eggs raise cholesterol? ›

Answer From Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D. Chicken eggs are an affordable source of protein and other nutrients. They're also naturally high in cholesterol. But the cholesterol in eggs doesn't seem to raise cholesterol levels the way some other foods, such as those high in trans fats and saturated fats, do.

Can I eat eggs with high cholesterol? ›

People with raised cholesterol often wonder if it's OK to eat eggs, as egg yolk is rich in cholesterol. Generally speaking, it should be fine for most people, as the cholesterol in eggs does not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol. It's much more important to limit the amount of saturated fat you eat.

Does exercise Lower cholesterol? ›

How does exercise improve cholesterol levels? Exercise works to eliminate the dangerous, fatty LDL cholesterol by increasing HDL cholesterol. Losing weight also increases HDL.

What is the new truth about cholesterol? ›

A new class of drugs can dramatically lower your LDL cholesterol. PSCK9 inhibitors are introducing a new era in treating high cholesterol, especially the kind that's genetically inherited. Treatment with PSCK9 inhibitors can cut LDL levels by 50% or more.

Which cholesterol number is most important? ›

LDL is the number most doctors and heart health programs focus on in particular, says Mosca. "Every single point of LDL decrease makes a difference," she says. "If your LDL is at 140 and you get it down to 130, that's great, even if you haven't reached optimum levels yet."

How long before high cholesterol does damage? ›

“It adds up over time, which may mean a heart attack or stroke in your 50s or 60s.” The longer you have high cholesterol, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. In one study, people who had high levels for 11 years or more had double the risk than those who had them for 10 years or less.

Are bananas good for cholesterol? ›

Fruits like avocados and apples, and citrus fruits like oranges and bananas can help lower cholesterol.

What should I eat for breakfast if I have high cholesterol? ›

Start Your Day Right: 8 Healthy Breakfast Ideas to Lower Your Cholesterol
  • Oatmeal. A 44-gram serving of steel-cut oaks packs 4 grams of dietary fiber. ...
  • Almond milk. ...
  • Avocado toast. ...
  • Egg white scramble with spinach. ...
  • Orange juice. ...
  • Whey protein smoothie. ...
  • Smoked salmon. ...
  • Apple bran muffins.

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