Cholesterol Risk Factors

Factors Affecting Blood Cholesterol Levels

Many factors determine whether your blood cholesterol level is high or low. The following are the most important:

  • Heredity -- Your genes partly determine the amount of cholesterol your body makes, and high blood cholesterol can run in families.
  • Diet -- There are two nutrients in the foods you eat that can increase your blood cholesterol level: saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat is a type of fat found mostly in foods that come from animals. Cholesterol comes only from animal products. Saturated fat raises your cholesterol level more than anything else in the diet. Reducing the amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat is an important step in reducing your blood cholesterol levels.
  • Weight -- Excess weight tends to increase blood cholesterol levels. If you are overweight and have high blood cholesterol, losing weight may help you lower it.
  • Exercise -- Regular physical activity may help to lower LDL-cholesterol and raise desirable HDL-cholesterol levels.
  • Age and Gender -- Before menopause, women have total cholesterol levels that are lower than those of men the same age. Pregnancy raises blood cholesterol levels in many women, but blood cholesterol levels should return to normal about 20 weeks after delivery. As women and men get older, their blood cholesterol levels rise. In women, menopause often causes an increase in their LDL-cholesterol levels. Some women may benefit from taking estrogen after menopause, because estrogen lowers LDLs and raises HDLs.
  • Alcohol -- Intake increases HDL-cholesterol. It is not known whether it also reduces the risk of heart disease. Drinking too much alcohol can certainly damage and liver and heart muscle and cause other health problems. Because of these risks, you should not drink alcoholic beverages to prevent heart disease.
  • Stress -- Over the long term, stress has not been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels. The real problem with stress may be how it affects your habits. For example, when some people are under stress they console themselves by eating fatty foods. The saturated fat and cholesterol in these foods probably cause higher blood cholesterol, not the stress itself.
Also see: Cholesterol Overview | Interpreting Test Results | Reducing Cholesterol

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Whilst high blood cholesterol (high total cholesterol and high LDL-cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol are significant risk factors for heart disease, there are also a number of other contributing factors, many of which can be controlled:

  • Cigarette Smoking
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Physical Inactivity

Factors that cannot be controlled include:

  • Age -- Risk is increased in men aged 45 years and over, and in women aged 55 years and over.
  • Family History -- Risk is increased in those with a family history of early heart disease (heart attack or sudden death), where a father or brother was stricken before age 55, or a mother or sister stricken before age 65.

Another factor that influences your risk of heart disease is where your body stores excess fat. If you have an apple-shaped body with most of your fat around the stomach, you are at a greater risk of heart disease than if your body is pear-shaped, with most of your fat around your hips. Generally, men carry their fat around the stomach, whereas women carry it on the hips and thighs.

Talk to your doctor about all of your risk factors and what you can do to reduce your chance of heart disease. Often, the actions you take to control one risk factor help reduce others as well. For example, losing weight helps to reduce your blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, and helps to control diabetes. Regular physical activity can help you lose weight as well as improve the fitness of your heart and lungs, which also can help lower your risk of heart disease.

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