Blood Cholesterol
Blood Cholesterol

Blood Cholesterol Causes and Risk Factors

An unhealthy lifestyle is the most common cause of high “bad” LDL cholesterol or low “good” HDL cholesterol. However, genes that you inherit from your parents, other medical conditions, and some medicines may also raise LDL cholesterol levels or lower “good” HDL cholesterol levels.

What raises the risk for unhealthy blood cholesterol levels?

Unhealthy lifestyle habits

  • Eating a lot of foods high in saturated fats raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of red meat and dairy products. No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats.
  • Lack of physical activity is linked to a higher risk of having unhealthy blood cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol, particularly in women, and raises LDL cholesterol.
  • Stress may raise levels of certain hormones, such as corticosteroids. These can cause your body to make more cholesterol.
  • Drinking too much alcohol (more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women) can raise your total cholesterol level.
  • Getting little or low-quality sleep has been linked to lower cardiovascular health.

Learn about heart-healthy lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk for high blood cholesterol.

Family history

Family members usually have similar cholesterol levels. This suggests that your genes can raise your risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Mutations , or changes, in your genes can be passed from parent to child. These changes in genes that control cholesterol levels can cause familial hypercholesterolemia. If you have a family history of high blood cholesterol, it may be more difficult for your body to remove LDL cholesterol from your blood or break it down in the liver.

Other medical conditions

Many health problems that raise your risk of high blood cholesterol are caused by unhealthy lifestyle habits. For example, a lack of physical activity and poor eating habits can lead to overweight and obesity, which are linked to diabetes and sleep apnea. For people with conditions such as lupus and HIV, the condition itself and the medicine used to treat it may lead to unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of high cholesterol if you have any of the following:


Some medicines that you take for other health problems can raise your level of “bad” LDL cholesterol or lower your level of “good” HDL cholesterol, including:

  • Arrhythmia medicines, such as amiodarone
  • Beta-blockers for relieving angina chest pain or treating high blood pressure
  • Chemotherapy medicines used to treat cancer
  • Diuretics, such as thiazide, to treat high blood pressure
  • Immunosuppressive medicines, such as cyclosporine, to treat inflammatory diseases or to prevent rejection after organ transplant
  • Retinoids to treat acne
  • Steroids, such as prednisone, to treat inflammatory diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis


Unhealthy levels of cholesterol can affect people of all ages, even young children. However, high cholesterol is most commonly diagnosed in people between ages 40 and 59. As you get older, your body’s metabolism changes. Your liver does not remove “bad” LDL cholesterol as well as it did when you were young. These normal changes may increase your risk for developing high blood cholesterol as you age.

Race or ethnicity

Your race or ethnicity may affect your risk of high blood cholesterol:

  • Overall, non-Hispanic White people are more likely than other groups to have high levels of total cholesterol.
  • Asian Americans, including those of Indian, Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese descent, are more likely to have high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol than other groups.
  • Hispanic Americans are more likely to have lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol than other groups.
  • African Americans are more likely than other groups to have high levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.

A study found that higher levels of HDL may not be as beneficial in some Black and White adults as was once believed. Having other risk factors, such as high blood pressureobesity, or diabetes may outweigh the health benefits of higher HDL levels.


Between ages 20 and 39, men have a greater risk for high total cholesterol than women.

A woman’s risk goes up after menopause. Menopause lowers levels of female hormones that may protect against high blood cholesterol. After menopause, women’s levels of total and “bad” LDL cholesterol usually go up, while their levels of “good” HDL cholesterol go down.

Can high blood cholesterol be prevented?

Even if you have a family history of high blood cholesterol, you can still help prevent unhealthy blood cholesterol levels with a heart-healthy lifestyle. Heart-healthy habits that start in childhood and continue throughout your life can help prevent unhealthy blood cholesterol and heart and blood vessel diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

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