Knowing Your Risk: High Cholesterol
Certain health conditions, your lifestyle, and your family history can raise your risk for high cholesterol. These are called “risk factors.”
You can’t control some of these risk factors, such as your age or your family history. But you can take steps to lower your risk for high cholesterol by changing things you can control.
Health Conditions That Increase Your Risk: Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels and raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. This combination raises your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Your body needs glucose (sugar) for energy. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps move glucose from the food you eat to your body’s cells. If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should, or both.
Diabetes causes sugars to build up in the blood. If your health care provider thinks you have symptoms of diabetes, he or she may recommend that you get tested. If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels carefully. Talk with your health care team about treatment options. Your doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes to help keep your blood sugar under good control—those actions will help reduce your risk.
Behaviors That Increase Your Risk
Your lifestyle choices can increase your risk for high cholesterol.
- Eating a diet high in saturated fat and trans fat may contribute to high cholesterol and related conditions, such as heart disease.
- Not getting enough physical activity can make you gain weight, which can lead to high cholesterol.
- Obesity is linked to higher triglyceride levels, higher LDL cholesterol levels, and lower HDL cholesterol levels.Obesity can also lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Talk to your health care team about a plan to reduce your weight to a healthy level.
The good news is that healthy behaviors can lower your risk for high cholesterol.
Family members share genes and often also share behaviors, lifestyles, and environments that can influence their health and their risk for high cholesterol, heart disease, and other related conditions.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you are more likely to have high cholesterol. You may need to get your cholesterol levels checked more often than people who do not have a family history of high cholesterol.
The risk for high cholesterol can increase even more when a family history of high cholesterol combines with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as eating an unhealthy diet.
Some people have an inherited genetic condition called “familial hypercholesterolemia” (FH). This condition causes very high LDL (“bad“) cholesterol levels beginning at a young age that, left untreated, continue to worsen with age. FH is relatively rare in the United States, affecting between 1 in 250 to 1 in 500 (or 1.5 million) Americans.1
If someone in your family has a heart attack early in life, talk to your health care team about your own and your other family members’ risk for familial hypercholesterolemia and whether your family should get tested.
Your health care team may talk to you about lifestyle changes you can make to help lower or manage your cholesterol levels. Often, though, FH can’t be treated with lifestyle changes alone. You may need medicine, such as statin therapy or other medicine, to control your cholesterol levels. You may also need more than one medicine.
Family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. Family health history is a useful tool for understanding health risks and preventing disease. To help people collect and organize their family history information, CDC’s Office of Public Health Genomics collaborated with the U.S. Surgeon General and other federal agencies to develop a Web-based tool called My Family Health Portrait.
Age and Gender
Everyone’s risk for high cholesterol goes up with age. This is because, as we age, our bodies can’t clear cholesterol from the blood as well as they could when we were younger. This leads to higher cholesterol levels, which raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Until around age 55 (or until menopause), women tend to have lower LDL levels than men do.2 At any age, men tend to have lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol than women do.
- Know the Facts About High Cholesterol [PDF-281 KB]
- Heart Disease
- Aortic Aneurysm
- High Blood Pressure
- Cholesterol—American Heart Association
- Family Hypercholesterolemia—U.S. National Library of Medicine
- Take Action, Live Healthy! My Cholesterol Guide—American Heart Association
- Your Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC [PDF-1.7 MB]—National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- de Ferranti SD, Rodday AM, Mendelson MM, Wong JB, Leslie LK, Sheldrick RC.Prevalence of familial hypercholesterolemia in the 1999 to 2012 United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).Circulation. 2016;133:1067–72.
- National Cholesterol Education Program. Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) Final Report [PDF-1M]. NIH Pub. No. 02-5215. Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; 2002.
- Page last reviewed: October 31, 2017
- Page last updated: April 5, 2018
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