The Baby Boomer Heart: Cholesterol Rising
People between ages 45-60 years are at risk for high cholesterol. High cholesterol can build up even in trim, active people.
Balancing Your Risks: Food and Genetics
Unfortunately, it often doesn't take much for this delicate balance to go awry, particularly as you age.
"Some folks are simply genetically prone to making too much LDL. They aren't overweight, they exercise regularly, but as they get older HDL goes down and LDL goes up, and they just make too much cholesterol," says Howard Weintraub, MD, co-director of the New York University Lipid Clinic in New York City.
If you're one of them, you probably will need to eat a careful low-fat diet and take medication eventually.
For the rest of us, experts say we are driving our cholesterol up with a rich, high-fat diet and a lack of exercise. And in the process, we're putting our hearts at risk.
What are the specific dangers? Krumholz says when LDL rises too high, it collects and sticks inside artery walls. This contributes to clot formation, and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. It can also cause blood vessels to become stiff and hard, which, in turn, increases the risk of high blood pressure.
Moreover, the latest research shows that LDL cholesterol also inflames artery walls, causing a release of chemicals that may be directly related to heart attack and even sudden death.
How to Tell if Your Cholesterol Is Putting You at Risk
Although cholesterol is a leading factor in heart disease, Underberg says that, on its own, it's not a completely accurate predictor of heart disease risk. It's just one factor of many risk factors that may eventually lead to heart attack.
"It must be viewed in concert with what else is going on in your body -- your weight, body shape, blood pressure, and fitness level -- in order to obtain a true picture of heart health," he tells WebMD.
New, more sophisticated tests are also attempting to tease out the actual size of cholesterol particles in the body, which can make a difference in your risk. In studies thus far, large pieces of LDL cholesterol appear to be less dangerous for the heart than tiny particles, which sneak in under the lining of an artery and lead to inflammation.
Nonetheless, your cholesterol counts. So it's important for adults to know their total cholesterol count, as well as their LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels. Call your doctor to get your numbers from your last physical when you had blood work done. Then, compare them to these risk levels from the American Heart Association:
- Total Cholesterol
- Most Desirable: Less than 200 mg/dL
- Risky: 200 to 239 mg/dL
- Danger Zone: 240 mg/dL or more
- LDL Cholesterol
- Most Desirable: Under 100 mg/dL
- Desirable: 100 to 129 mg/dL
- Borderline: 130 to 159 mg/dL
- Risky: 160 to 189 mg/dL
- Danger Zone: 190 mg/dL or over
- Most Desirable: 60 mg/dL or higher
- Risky: Less than 40 mg/dL
- Most Desirable: Under 150 mg/dL
- Risky: 150 to 199 mg/dL
- Danger Zone: 200 mg/dL or higher