One in four American women has high blood cholesterol levels (240 mg/dL or higher), which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Women with high cholesterol levels are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than women with normal levels.
Although excess weight tends to increase your blood cholesterol levels, heredity and diet also contribute to the condition. High cholesterol can run in families, and people can raise their blood cholesterol levels by eating too much food that's high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Before age 45, women's total blood cholesterol levels average below 200 mg/dL (a desirable level). But between ages 45 and 55, women's average total blood cholesterol levels may rise to almost 220 mg/dL (a borderline level), and then they may rise to 240 mg/dL between ages 55 and 64.
Your body needs cholesterol to function well. But because the body makes all the cholesterol it needs, the extra fat and cholesterol that you eat sit in the walls of arteries that carry blood throughout the body, including the heart. These fatty deposits cause the arteries to narrow, less blood gets to the heart, and the risk for coronary heart disease increases.
When you get the results of your cholesterol reading, it will include an overall total, as well as your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. Your level of LDL, known as "bad" cholesterol, should be below 130 mg/dL. Readings of 130-159 mg/dL are moderately increased, and levels of 160 mg/dL or more are high. The higher your LDL level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease.
In contrast, as the HDL level decreases, the heart-disease risk increases. High levels of HDL (60 or higher) lower the risk for heart disease. HDL is known as "good" cholesterol because it removes cholesterol from the blood and protects the heart. An HDL level under 40 increases your risk for heart disease.
You can lower your cholesterol
You can lower your blood cholesterol level and, in turn, slow, stop, or even reverse the buildup of this waxy substance in your arteries. Unchecked, the deposits can cause hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), the major cause of heart attacks. Follow these tips from the National Cholesterol Education Program:
Thirty to 40 minutes of physical activity at least four times each week help to raise your HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and lower your LDL level (the bad kind), as well as improve the health of your heart and lungs. (See Get Moving)
Lose extra weight
Overweight people tend to have high blood cholesterol levels. See your doctor about starting a weight-management plan to lower your cholesterol and boost your health. (See Maintain a healthy weight)
Limit your alcohol intake
In women, drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day increases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind).
Follow heart-healthy diets
These diets emphasize foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol, and high in whole grains and fiber. (See Eating for a Healthy Heart)
If your cholesterol level is still too high even after following these guidelines for 6 to 12 months, you may need to take medication to lower it. Talk with a doctor about medication options.