High Cholesterol Risk Factors

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on November 06, 2022
2 min read

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and found in certain foods from animals, such as dairy products, eggs, and meat. The body needs some cholesterol in order to work. But too much cholesterol can increase your risk of developing heart disease. Many things contribute to high cholesterol, some of which you can control and others you can't.

  • Gender: After menopause, a woman's LDL cholesterol level ("bad" cholesterol) goes up, as does their risk for heart disease.
  • Age: Your risk may increase as you get older. Men 45 or older and women 55 or older have a higher risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
  • Family history: Your risk of high cholesterol may increase if a father or brother had high cholesterol or early heart disease (before age 55) or a mother or sister had early heart disease (before age 65). You can also inherit a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), which causes high LDL levels starting at a young age. It’s rare, but left untreated, it can worsen over time. Talk to your doctor about whether to get a test for FH. 
  • Diet: The trans fats, saturated fat, sugar, and (to a lesser extent) cholesterol in the food you eat raise total and LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Weight: Being overweight can make your LDL cholesterol level go up and your HDL level go down. High blood pressure can be a sign that your weight is going up.
  • Physical activity/exercise: Increased physical activity helps to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) levels. It also helps you lose weight.
  • Smoking: Smoking damages your blood vessels, which makes them more likely to collect fatty deposits. It also lowers HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels. You can ask your doctor or look online for ways to help you quit. The CDC smoking website is a good place to start.  
  • Type 2 diabetes: Studies show type 2 diabetes can lower “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels and raise triglycerides, another type of cholesterol.  Poor diet and lack of physical exercise are two of the prime drivers of the disease.
  • High blood pressure: While high blood pressure does not cause high cholesterol, it often shows up in people who have it. That’s because they can share many of the same risk factors like a lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, aging, and obesity. And both conditions are risk factors for heart disease, which causes the most deaths from high cholesterol.