The cholesterol levels of average Americans are decreasing. This raises the question of whether that means Americans now have better heart health? It's a complex question to which there's no simple answer. Cholesterol is actually vital for human existence. However, high cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for America's leading cause of death, heart disease. Still, the body needs cholesterol to help build human tissue, produce sex hormones and produce needed bile acid in the liver. Balance is the key issue when looking at cholesterol levels.
Where The Body Gets Cholesterol
The human body produces cholesterol in the liver. Plus, the body gets more cholesterol from meat, dairy and other animal products people eat. However, there are two types of cholesterol both made up of fats and proteins that create compounds called lipoproteins. One type of cholesterol is made up of high-density lipoproteins and the other is made up of low-density lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein or LDL is considered 'bad' cholesterol while high-density lipoproteins or HDL is considered 'good' cholesterol.
What The Designations Mean
LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because if there's too much of it in the body, it can cause plaque to accumulate on the walls of arteries and make the arteries harden. When the arteries harden, two bad things happen. One is the blood vessels throughout the body become narrow and make it difficult for oxygen-rich blood to flow to all parts of the body. A second problem caused by hardening of the arteries is it can lead to the development of blood clots. These blood clots can prevent blood from flowing properly and cause heart attacks and strokes.
The Role Of Good Cholesterol
HDL or 'good' cholesterol helps to keep the cardiovascular system healthy. It helps prevent strokes and heart attacks. HDL does so by removing LDL from the arteries and carrying it to the liver. There the LDL is broken down and flushed out of the body. Having high levels of HDL cholesterol is important for keeping the body healthy and strong, while low levels can lead to increased health risks. The opposite is true with LDL cholesterol. Having large amounts of HDL is dangerous while low amount is better for the body. So when studies say Americans are lowering their cholesterol, it's good news if it's their LDL being lowered and bad news if their HDL is dropping.
Ideal Cholesterol Levels
When it comes to maintaining proper levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol, the American Heart Association say the ideal level of total cholesterol that's considered safe is between 150 and 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood. Having between 200 mg/dL and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline, while a total cholesterol level above 240 mg/dL is considered to be too high. The American Heart Association recommends keeping the LDL cholesterol in your system at or below 100. The National Institutes of Health says having HDL levels that are 60 mg/dL or higher is considered protective. On the other hand, HDL levels of less than 40 mg/dL puts one at greater risk for heart disease.
Keeping Your Cholesterol Levels In Check
There are a number of factors that influence the cholesterol levels in people's bodies. One over which they have no control is heredity. Certain people are biologically predisposed to having higher cholesterol levels because of their genetic makeup. However, there are several factors that can keep cholesterol levels down over which they do have control. Those factors are making sure their diet doesn't contain too many foods with saturated fats and high cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight and regularly participating in sports, strength training, walking, running, dancing, yoga and other forms of exercise.
Taking Statins Have Helped
In addition to eating a low cholesterol diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly, there's one other factor that has played a role in lowering the cholesterol levels of millions of Americans. That factor is taking statin drugs that help to reduce the levels of triglycerides, cholesterol and fats in their blood. Changes in the national guidelines about who doctors should recommend take statins to lower their cholesterol levels and reduce their risk of developing heart disease made in 2013, saw an estimated 13 million more people begin to take the statin drugs. Studies done soon afterwards showed a dramatic reduction in average cholesterol levels in Americans.
The New National Guidelines
The new national guidelines for using statins for treating high cholesterol and reducing people's heart disease risk focused more on people's overall risk for developing heart disease rather than simply looking at if they met certain cholesterol level targets. Since that revision in the guideline for when people should be prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs went into effect in 2013, Americans' average cholesterol levels has been consistently dropping. The change increased the number of people for whom it was thought could get positive benefits from starting to take statin drugs.
Heartened By The Declines
Researchers and healthcare professionals are heartened by the overall decline in cholesterol levels in the United States. However, they caution more work still needs to be done to address the high cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease millions of Americans live with today. They see the dropping cholesterol levels of Americans as a sign of hope, but hasten to point out that in the United States heart disease is still the number one cause of death. The good news is that between 2006 and 2016, the number of people who died from heart disease fell by almost 20%.
Considerable Room For Improvement
While between 2005 and 2016 the cholesterol levels of the average Americans dropped, especially among people taking cholesterol medication, there is considerable room for improvement in many other areas. Modest gains are being made in the fight against cholesterol and heart disease. But that optimism must be tempered by a hint of caution. The interconnectedness of cholesterol, heart disease and statin use are complex issues that require more research before ultimate success is attained.