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What Causes High Cholesterol?

Elevated cholesterol levels aren't caused by a high cholesterol diet alone. The fact is, a combination of factors affects your cholesterol levels. There are two main categories of risks that contribute to high cholesterol—those that you can't change (uncontrollable risks) and those that you can (controllable risks).

Uncontrollable Risk Factors

These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories. How many of these risk factors do you exhibit?
  • Your age. Your risk of developing high cholesterol increases as you age. Men over age 45 and women over 55 are at higher risk than their younger counterparts.
  • Your gender. Overall, men are more prone to high cholesterol than women—until women reach 50 to 55 years of age, that is. Naturally occurring cholesterol levels in women increase around this age.
  • Your family history. Your family has given you more than your eye color. They've also partly determined your risk for several conditions and diseases. Some people have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. Your risk is higher if an immediate family member had high cholesterol and/or its associated problems (like heart disease), especially at a young age (under 55).
  • Your race. Somewhat related to family history, your race can also predetermine part of your cholesterol risk. In the U.S., African Americans, for example, are more likely to develop high cholesterol than Caucasians.

Controllable Risk Factors

Factors that you can control are related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and whether or not to exercise. These are areas of your life where you can take control to improve your cholesterol levels and enhance your overall health.
  • Your diet. Since your body makes about 80 percent of its cholesterol, the other 20 percent comes from the foods you eat. If your diet is high in cholesterol-promoting foods (saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat) and low in heart-healthy foods (healthy fats, whole grains, fish, fruits and veggies), then your diet is probably contributing to your high cholesterol levels.
  • Your activity level. Inactive people are an increased risk for high cholesterol. Regular exercise naturally decreases the LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your blood while increasing your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Exercise does not have to be strenuous to offer benefits.
  • Your weight. Being overweight increases your blood cholesterol levels since your body stores the extra calories you eat as triglycerides. When these triglyceride levels are high, HDL (good) cholesterol levels tend to be low. Losing just 10 percent of your body weight (if you are overweight) can improve your cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking. Did you know that smoking is the leading preventable cause of heart disease, due to its effects on your arteries, heart, blood pressure and cholesterol levels? Smoking damages the walls of your arteries and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Quitting can stop (and potentially reverse) a lot of the existing damage to your body, and improve your cholesterol.
When you have other existing health conditions, you are compounding your risk of serious complications and disease if you don't lower your cholesterol. Add high-risk factors into the picture (family history, age, race) and your risk is compounded even more. The good thing is that you can break that chain of progressive disease at any point by changing what you can control.

Lowering your cholesterol can help improve your health by reducing your risk of heart attack, stroke and other serious health problems. You should work closely with your doctor to develop a cholesterol-lowering plan that is safe and effective for you. These plans usually involve some combination of dietary changes, regular exercise, medication and weight loss.
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Member Comments

A good article I have one of the uncontrollable factors, a family history of high cholesterol. Report
Great information. Report
After focusing on my diabetes for two years and getting it under control in my third year I have focused on my Cholesterol getting my total Cholesterol down to 150 from 240 and my blood pressure to 120/80 from 140/80 and my RHR to 58 Report
Thank you. Cholesterol so far has been good. Report
Good information Report
Great information. Thanks. Report
a few minor inaccuracies with the article, otherwise good tips~ Report
Thank you for the wonderful article! It is very helpful! Report
Good article. Report
My HDL has always been higher than normal. The test from earlier this month, it was 78 and when I was still on active duty it was always in the 90s, once at 99. Although I rarely eat red meat and avoid saturated fats, my problem is getting that LDL under control, it's 150. Various PCPs have told me that having such a high HDL negates a high LDL, but it's still frustrating. I have managed to shave 20 points off my LDL over the past six months with the weight I've lost, so I'll just keep plugging away. sigh Report
Thanks. Report
Thank you Report
Eating cholesterol does NOT result in higher cholesterol levels. This is out-dated science, and a ply to push statin drugs for the sake of profits. Report
important to remember that eating fat doesn't cause cholesterol. There are good fats and need some to be able to use some important vitamins. Report
Working on learning on cholesterol other food thank you for the article. Report
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