Lower Your Risk for High Cholesterol
Cholesterol has received a bad reputation in recent years, but it’s vital to your body. It’s used to produce cell membranes, hormones, and vitamin D. While some cholesterol is needed, having too much cholesterol can be a health concern for some older adults. That’s because having high cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, can lead to plaque buildup in your blood that can clog the arteries.
Your cholesterol levels can rise as you age, so it’s no surprise that high cholesterol is a common health concern for many older adults. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, one of every three adults (38%) in America has high cholesterol.
Managing your cholesterol is easier when you understand how it works and why doctors take it so seriously. Here’s what’s important to know about reducing your risk of high cholesterol as you age.
Cholesterol Is Already in Your Body
Cholesterol is waxy and fat-like and can be found in your cells. It’s made by the liver and present in certain foods we eat, like meat and dairy. Cholesterol is transported in the blood by proteins called lipoproteins. A small amount of cholesterol is good for you. It helps your heart, nervous system, and other parts of your body work well. But too much cholesterol can trigger serious health problems like atherosclerosis, which narrows the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart and increasing heart attack and stroke risk.
High Cholesterol Has No Symptoms
There is no known cause (idiopathic) and are no apparent symptoms for most people with high cholesterol. Treatment depends on a person’s overall health, risk factors for heart disease, age, and whether a family member has high cholesterol or has had heart disease before. The chances of getting high cholesterol increase if you are overweight, have diabetes, are inactive, or smoke. Your doctor can help you identify your risk by running tests and evaluating your overall health and family history of high cholesterol.
Cholesterol Can Rise as We Age
Cholesterol levels can increase as we get older, and as many as 47% of adults age 65 and older have high cholesterol. Many different factors can contribute to high cholesterol levels in your body. While genetics plays a role, other influences such as diet, lifestyle, and age also impact cholesterol levels. Hormone changes brought on by menopause can also be a trigger for cholesterol increases in women, as can thyroid changes. Reduced liver function as we age can result in higher cholesterol if the liver has trouble metabolizing cholesterol.
Not All Cholesterol Is Bad
There are two kinds of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol). LDL is bad because it takes cholesterol to the body’s cells and tissues, where it can deposit on the walls of arteries. HDL is good because it takes cholesterol back to the liver so it can’t build up in your arteries. Your level of HDL will be considered by your doctor when determining whether you have high cholesterol that needs to be treated.
Tests for High Cholesterol Are Easy
A simple blood test is all that’s needed to check your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Your doctor might also check your triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. High triglycerides combined with high LDL and low HDL could be a cause for concern.
The NHLBI advises cholesterol screenings every one to two years for men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65. Yearly cholesterol tests are recommended for people over 65. Your doctor can tell you whether your cholesterol is too high based on your risk factors and cholesterol lab test results.
Cholesterol Guidelines Are Clear
The cholesterol in your body is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood, also known as a “reading.” Normal cholesterol levels depend on your age and gender. But the latest cholesterol research and government guidelines recommend that you aim to keep your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol below 100 mg/dL and HDL (“good”) cholesterol above 40 mg/dL. You also should try to keep your total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL.
Cholesterol levels that are much higher – or very low levels of cholesterol – will be taken seriously by your doctor, who may want to perform follow-up tests and possibly recommend treatment. For example, if your cholesterol is very low, it might indicate a more serious health problem.
Diet Changes Can Lower Cholesterol
Treatment for high cholesterol will vary, depending on other risk factors for heart disease. Your doctor may advise diet and lifestyle changes, such as the reduction of saturated fat and trans fats from your diet. The American Heart Association recommends that only 5% to 6% of your total daily calories come from saturated fats. To prevent high cholesterol, you can modify your diet to include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, fish, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains – all foods nationally recognized as heart-healthy. And what about eating eggs? Studies are still trying to determine if the dietary cholesterol in eggs contributes to serum cholesterol in your body. Still, the American Heart Association only recommends up to one egg a day for most people, fewer for people with high blood cholesterol.
For some people who can’t lower their cholesterol with diet and exercise, medications called statins can help reduce the production of cholesterol in your blood. Statins are one of the most prescribed medicines in the country. If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, your doctor will determine whether statins are suitable for you based on your age, other medications you might be taking, and your overall health.
Find Age-Friendly Care Where You Live
Age-friendly Health Care is care that addresses your unique needs and wants. It can help you enjoy a better quality of life with the care that is safe and based on what research shows are the most important things to pay attention to as we get older, the 4Ms for healthy aging: what Matters most to you, the Medication you take and how it impacts your wellbeing, Mentation (that’s your mood and memory) and your Mobility, which is so crucial for maintaining your health and independence. Did you know that more and more health systems are offering Age-Friendly Care? Learn about Age-Friendly Health Care and where you can find it at AgeFriendly.org.
THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.