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Causes of High Cholesterol

By Emily Lockhart

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Cholesterol is a thick substance that can be found in the blood. While some cholesterol is good—your body actually needs it to build healthy cells—having very high cholesterol (also known as hyperlipidemia or hypercholesterolemia) can have a negative impact on your heart, eventually leading to heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. In some situations this can result in fatty deposits building up in the blood vessels (a condition referred to as atherosclerosis), making it more difficult for blood to flow through the arteries.

And so there’s no denying it — having high cholesterol is a very dangerous situation. The good news is that there are many ways to keep your cholesterol down. But it’s important you understand the causes of high cholesterol before setting out to lower it…

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1. Poor Diet

A diet high in “bad” cholesterol (known clinically as low-density lipoprotein [LDL] cholesterol) can increase your cholesterol levels and lead to heart disease. That’s why it’s important to avoid trans fats, which are rife with LDL cholesterol. Trans fats can be found in a number of unhealthy foods, from fast food burgers to baked goods (e.g., donuts, cake, and tarts).

To combat high cholesterol, try eating loads of whole grains (such as whole wheat breads and pastas) and consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. You should also replace less healthy red meat with heart-healthy types of fish—such as salmon, cod, tuna, and halibut—all of which research says contains omega-3 fatty acids that are known to help maintain heart health.

2. Excess Weight

Being overweight is a major risk factor for having high cholesterol. Many people struggling with obesity consume too much LDL cholesterol, which can be found in foods high in trans fats. Research has shown that exercise can actually help to lower cholesterol. That’s because regular, moderate physical activity can increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good,” cholesterol levels. In time, research shows that this can lower one’s weight and lower LDL cholesterol levels.

Of course, it’s crucial that you consult your doctor before engaging in an aggressive exercise plan. If you’re currently overweight and looking to cut your cholesterol, consider starting with moderate physical activities, such as riding a bike or going for brisk walks.

3. Smoking

It should be no surprise that smoking is bad for your health. But it’s specifically troublesome when it comes to cholesterol, as it lowers HDL cholesterol levels while causing physical harm to the lining of blood vessels. In time, this can raise one’s risk of developing blood clots, which can eventually lead to atherosclerosis (or the hardening of the arteries) and heart attacks. It’s worth noting that second-hand smoke (or breathing in the cigarette smoke of others) can also have this effect.

So, if you’ve got high cholesterol (and even if you don’t), you should stop smoking immediately. A number of studies, including research from WebMD, reveal that quitting the habit can immediately begin the process of reviving your HDL levels.

4. Age

The older you are, the more likely you’ll have to deal with high cholesterol. That’s because older adults are less likely to get physical exercise (on account of various mobility issues). Research from the U.S. government’s National Cholesterol Education Program has shown that men older than 45-years of age and women older than 55-years of age are automatically at higher risk for high cholesterol.

The good news is that there are things older adults can do to lower their cholesterol levels. Exercise helps, but even if that’s not an option one can cut their cholesterol by eating healthy foods (e.g., whole grains and fruits and vegetables), losing weight, and quitting smoking.

5. Gender

Men are far more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol than women. And for many men, this means they’re at far greater risk of having a heart attack than their female counterparts. Take, for example, a recent study of 40,000 men and women under the age of 60 that showed not only are men more likely to deal with high cholesterol but also men with high cholesterol had 3-times the risk of having a heart attack than women who had high cholesterol.

That’s why it’s crucial for all men, especially those older than 45-years of age, to have their cholesterol levels tested. If high cholesterol is detected, you should seriously consider serious lifestyle adjustments, such as changing your diet, losing weight, and quitting smoking.

6. Family History

Some people eat well, have a healthy body weight, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, and still find themselves diagnosed with high cholesterol. In many cases, this is the result of familial hypercholesterolemia, which simply means that the person has a family history of high cholesterol.

Roughly one in 500 people (or about 13-million people in the U.S.) have familial hypercholesterolemia, which means they’re at risk of developing CAD and having a heart attack. That’s why it’s crucial for all men and women—no matter their diet, size, or activity levels—to see their doctor regularly as it regards cholesterol and other matters.

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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