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Cholesterol Levels Down Among U.S. Adults

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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Oct. 16, 2012 -- Cholesterol levels are dropping among U.S. adults, new research shows.

That's a good thing, as high levels of total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease.

From 1988 to 2010, average levels of total cholesterol, LDL, and blood fats called triglycerides fell for all groups of U.S. adults. Levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol started to rise during this time frame.

Heart disease risk is based on more than just your cholesterol profile, says CDC researcher Margaret D. Carroll, MSPH. High blood pressure, obesity, and smoking also play a role.

“We show that one risk factor may be decreasing and we will have to see what happens,” Carroll says. “Hopefully, progress will be made with the other risk factors as well.”

Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs, Reduction in Trans Fats Drive Changes

Carroll's study doesn't show why cholesterol levels dropped. The change may be due, at least in part, to the growing numbers of U.S. adults who take cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins.

From 1988 to 1994, 3.4% of adults took a statin. This percentage jumped to 15.5% in 2007-2010. 

“Statins dramatically reduce LDL levels and reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, and people live longer," says cardiologist Holly Andersen, MD, director of education and outreach for the Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Yet, a drop in cholesterol levels was also seen in adults not taking statins or other drugs to lower cholesterol. This suggests there may be other things going on, such as efforts to remove trans fats from our diets.

 According to the new study:

  • Average levels of total cholesterol fell from 206 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) in 1988-1994 to 196 mg/dL in 2007-2010.
  • Average LDL dropped from 129 mg/dL in 1988-1994 to 116 mg/dL during 2007-2010.
  • Average triglyceride levels increased from 118 mg/dL in 1988-1994 to 123 mg/dL in 1999-2002, and then declined in 2007-2010 to 110 mg/dL.

According to the American Heart Association, total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL of blood, and optimal LDL should be less than 100 mg/dL. Triglycerides, too, should be less than 100 mg/dL, and HDL should be 60 mg/dL or above for optimal heart health.

Know Your LDL Level

These positive cholesterol trends have already started to make a dent in rates of heart disease, says Steven Nissen, MD. He is the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

“We know that the single best predictor of heart disease is cholesterol levels, and they have been going down,” Nissen says.

“Levels of LDL cholesterol have declined substantially, and along with that decline, we are seeing a reduction in age-related heart disease,” he says. Rates of heart disease have declined steadily since the 1960s, according to the CDC.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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