Knowing Your Risk for 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.

  • Type 2 diabetes lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels and raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels. This combination raises your risk of heart disease and stroke. Learn more about type 2 diabetes.
  • 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.
  • Other health conditions. Other health conditions, such as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), can cause very high LDL cholesterol levels. Read more about FH below on this page.

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.
  • Smoking damages your blood vessels, making them more likely to collect fatty deposits. Smoking may also lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, learn more about tobacco use and ways to quit at CDC’s Smoking & Tobacco Use website.

The good news is that healthy behaviors can lower your risk for high cholesterol.

Some people have an inherited genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). This condition causes very high low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels beginning at a young age that, left untreated, continue to worsen with age. FH is relatively rare in the United States. An estimate of 1 million U.S. adults have confirmed or probable FH.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 FH 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.

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.

Visit Does It Run in the Family?External, a website that gives the “why” and “how” behind collecting family health history information, tips for talking to family members, examples of conditions that can run in the family, and hints for health. It is customizable with personal health stories, photos, and health condition information.

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.

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 low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) levels than men do.2 At any age, men tend to have lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol than women do.

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High cholesterol can run in families. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you are more likely to have high cholesterol.

References

  1. Bucholz EM, Rodday AM, Kolor K, Khoury MJ, de Ferranti SD. Prevalence and Predictors of Cholesterol Screening, Awareness, and Statin Treatment Among US Adults With Familial Hypercholesterolemia or Other Forms of Severe Dyslipidemia (1999–2014). 2018;137:2218–2230.
  2. 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 ReportCdc-pdfExternal. 2002;106(25):3143–421.