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Cholesterol Overview

Cholesterol Risk Factors

There are a number of factors that influence a person's cholesterol levels. They include diet, age, weight, gender, genetics, diseases and lifestyle.

There are two dietary factors associated with increases in blood cholesterol levels:

  • Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, even if the fats themselves do not contain cholesterol. (These include foods containing high levels of hydrogenated vegetable oils, especially palm and coconut oils, avocados and other high-fat foods of vegetable origin.) 
  • Eating foods containing high levels of cholesterol. (This group includes eggs and red meat--the most maligned of the cholesterol culprits--as well as lard and shrimp. These foods can significantly raise blood cholesterol levels, especially when combined with foods that are high in saturated fat.)

It's important to note that only foods of animal origin contain cholesterol. Lack of awareness of this fact has led to some confusing labels at the grocery store. For example, some items that are high in saturated fats from plant sources bear labels claiming that they are 100 percent cholesterol free. The statement may be true, but it's generally misleading because it implies that the product is definitely beneficial to your health.

The blood levels of cholesterol tend to increase as we age--a factor doctors consider when deciding treatment options for patients with certain cholesterol levels.

People who are overweight are more likely to have high blood cholesterol levels. They also tend to have lower HDL levels. The location of the excess weight also seems to play a role in cholesterol levels. A greater risk of increased cholesterol levels occurs when that extra weight is centered in the abdominal region, as opposed to the legs or buttocks.

Men tend to have higher LDL levels and lower HDL levels than do women, especially before age 50. After age 50, when women are in their post-menopausal years, decreasing amounts of estrogen are thought to cause the LDL level to rise.

Some people are genetically predisposed to having high levels of cholesterol. A variety of minor genetic defects can lead to excessive production of LDLs or a decreased capacity for their removal. This tendency towards high cholesterol levels is often passed on from parents to their children. If your parents have high cholesterol, you need to be tested to see if your cholesterol levels are also elevated.

Diseases such as diabetes can lower HDL levels, increase triglycerides and accelerate the development of atherosclerosis. High blood pressure, or hypertension, can also hasten the development of atherosclerosis, and some medications used to treat it can increase LDL and triglycerides and decrease HDL levels.

Factors that negatively affect cholesterol levels also include high levels of stress, which can raise total cholesterol levels, and cigarette smoking, which can lower a person's HDL level as much as 15 percent. On the other hand, strenuous exercise can increase HDL levels and decrease LDL levels. Exercise also can help reduce body weight, which, in turn, can help reduce cholesterol. Recent research has shown that moderate alcohol use (one drink per day for women, two drinks a day for men) can raise HDL cholesterol and therefore reduce the risk of heart attack. Despite such research, it is difficult to recommend the habitual use of alcohol, because there are also negative health consequences associated with alcohol use and a high potential for abuse.

Always remember that risk factors for high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease don't exist in a vacuum--they tend to amplify each other. Reducing the risk of a cardiovascular disease involves eliminating all of the risk factors that we can control and seeking medical advise for those we can't.