Causes and Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
In addition to blood cholesterol levels, current guidelines for determining heart disease, heart attack and stroke risk also take into consideration factors such as age, gender, race, smoking, blood pressure (and whether hypertension is being properly treated), blood sugar levels, and family history.
Most of the cholesterol that circulates in the bloodstream is LDL ("bad") cholesterol. High LDL levels may result from a combination of the following risk factors:
- Age (over age 45 in men and age 55 in women)
- Certain medications (e.g., some diuretics, immunosuppressants, and corticosteroids)
- Cigarette smoking
- Diseases (e.g., diabetes, hypothyroidism)
- Gender (after menopause, women's LDL levels tend to rise)
- Genetic predisposition (i.e., family history of early heart disease)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High dietary intake of cholesterol
High Cholesterol Risks
In one study, cholesterol levels in young men with no known heart disease were measured and documented. Researchers then recorded heart attacks and deaths that occurred in the participants during a 6-year period. The study shows that the higher the cholesterol level, the greater the risk for a fatal heart attack. The risk for fatal heart attack is about 5 times greater in those with a cholesterol level of 300 mg/dL or higher than in those with a cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL.
In the Framingham Heart Study, cholesterol levels, smoking habits, heart attack rates, and deaths in the population of an entire town have been recorded for over 50 years. After 30 years, more than 85% of people with cholesterol levels of 180 mg/dL or lower were still alive, compared to about 67% of those with cholesterol levels higher than 260 mg/dL.
Triglycerides are the major form of fat in the body and consist of three fat molecules combined with one glycerol (type of alcohol) molecule. High blood levels of triglycerides are usually caused by a genetic predisposition, or by a high intake of fat or alcohol. The primary risk from high triglyceride levels is inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).