Nutrition Articles

What Causes High Cholesterol?

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control

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Elevated cholesterol levels aren't caused by a high-cholesterol diet alone. The fact is, a combination of factors affect 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% of its cholesterol, the other 20% 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% 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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