Cholesterol levels vary by age, weight, and gender. Over time, a person's body tends to produce more cholesterol, meaning that all adults should check their cholesterol levels regularly, ideally about every 4 to 6 years.
Cholesterol is measured in three categories:
- total cholesterol
- LDL, or 'bad cholesterol"
- HDL, or 'good cholesterol"
The struggle for most people is balancing these levels. While total and LDL cholesterol levels should be kept low, having more HDL cholesterol can offer some protection against a person developing heart-related illnesses including heart attacks and strokes.
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How do levels differ by age naturally?
Balancing cholesterol in early life is important as unmanaged cholesterol in later life is difficult to treat.
Cholesterol levels tend to increase with age. Doctors recommend taking steps earlier in life to prevent dangerously high levels of cholesterol developing as a person ages. Years of unmanaged cholesterol can be much trickier to treat.
Children are least likely to have high levels of cholesterol and only need to have their levels checked once or twice before they are 18 years old.
However, if the child has risk factors for higher levels of cholesterol, they should get monitored more frequently.
Typically, men tend to have higher levels of cholesterol throughout life than women. A man's cholesterol levels generally increase as they age. However, women aren't immune to high cholesterol. A woman's cholesterol often increases when she goes through menopause.
Healthy levels for different age groups
Healthy levels of cholesterol don't vary much for typical adults. Variation of recommended levels tends to change due to other health conditions and considerations.
Cholesterol levels for adults
- Total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered desirable for adults. A reading between 200 and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline high and a reading of 240 mg/dL and above is considered high.
- LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL. Levels of 100 to 129 mg/dL are acceptable for people with no health issues but may be of more concern for those with heart disease or heart disease risk factors. A reading of 130 to 159 mg/dL is borderline high and 160 to 189 mg/dL is high. A reading of 190 mg/dL or higher is considered very high.
- HDL levels should be kept higher. A reading of less than 40 mg/dL is considered a major risk factor for heart disease. A reading from 41 mg/dL to 59 mg/dL is considered borderline low. The optimal reading for HDL levels is of 60 mg/dL or higher.
Cholesterol levels for children
By comparison, acceptable levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in children are different.
- An acceptable range of total cholesterol for a child is less than 170 mg/dL. Borderline high total cholesterol for a child ranges from 170 to 199 mg/dL. Any reading of total cholesterol over 200 in a child is too high.
- A child's LDL cholesterol levels should also be lower than an adult's. The optimal range of LDL cholesterol for a child is less than 110 mg/dL. Borderline high is from 110 to 129 mg/dL while high is over 130 mg/dL.
Age-specific tips for maintaining healthy levels
For children and adults, eating a healthful diet and taking regular exercise will help to keep cholesterol levels in check.
The best recommendation for children and adolescents to keep cholesterol levels in check is living a healthful, active lifestyle. This includes eating a healthful diet and getting plenty of exercise.
Sedentary, overweight children who eat a diet high in processed foods are most likely to have high cholesterol. Children who have a family history of high cholesterol may also be at risk.
Generally, the earlier an adult starts living a healthful lifestyle, the better for their cholesterol levels. Cholesterol levels build over time. A sudden change in lifestyle will help eventually, but the older a person is, the less impact they will see in cholesterol levels.
All adults should stay active and maintain regular exercise routines. Women going through menopause and adults with high levels of cholesterol may want to consider medication that will help reduce cholesterol levels more rapidly than diet alone.
High cholesterol at any age puts a person at risk for heart disease, heart attack, and strokes. These risks only increase over time, especially for adults who are not taking action to reduce their cholesterol buildup.
When to see a doctor
Children should see a doctor for cholesterol checks once or twice before the age of 18 but not during puberty. If the child comes from a family that has a history of heart disease or is overweight or has other health conditions, the recommendation may change.
Adults over the age of 20 should see a doctor every 4 to 6 years. For adults without any health issues, this is generally enough. However, people should seek a doctor's help for treatment and steps to take to bring levels of cholesterol down if:
- results of a cholesterol test come back with high or borderline high levels of total and LDL cholesterol
- they are overweight
- they have a family history of heart disease
There are methods people can use to reduce cholesterol levels and prevent them from increasing. One potential method is using therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC), which includes diet, exercise, and weight management. Another option is drug therapies that either lower cholesterol or reduce the absorption of cholesterol.
At any age, diets low in saturated fats and trans fats and high in soluble fibers and protein are good for lowering cholesterol buildup.
The TLC diet is a low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol eating plan. People following it should have a daily intake of less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat and less than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol. The TLC diet encourages people to eat the following foods:
- whole grains
- low-fat or nonfat dairy products
- skinless poultry
- lean meats
Additionally, the TLC diet suggests only taking in enough calories to maintain a desirable weight and avoid weight gain. Increasing the intake of soluble fibers and food that contains naturally occurring substances, such as some margarines, can also boost the diet's LDL-lowering power.
Proper weight management is another essential part of lowering cholesterol and preventing it building up. Overweight people who reduce their weight can help lower LDL in the process.
Losing weight is especially important for those with a group of risk factors that includes:
- high triglyceride levels
- low HDL levels
- overweight men with a waist measurement of more than 40 inches
- overweight women with a waist measurement of more than 35 inches
Regular physical activity of 30 minutes on most days is recommended for everyone. This will also help with weight management, which in turn helps with lowering cholesterol.
Doctors may prescribe statins to help lower cholesterol.
When these steps are not enough, drug treatment may also be needed. There are several types of cholesterol-lowering drugs available, including:
- Statins. These drugs block the liver from producinging cholesterol.
- Bile acid sequestrants. These drugs reduce the amount of fat absorbed from food.
- Cholesterol absorption inhibitors. These drugs lower triglycerides in the blood and reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed from food.
- Some vitamins and supplements, such as Niacin, stop the liver from removing HDL and lower triglycerides.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These acids raise the level of HDL and lowers triglycerides.
The best treatment to lower cholesterol levels involves a range of different methods, including lifestyle and diet. Ultimately, a doctor is the best person to talk to in order to figure out the best way for a person to lower bad cholesterol levels.