Good heart health is like a building block: It’s cumulative. The earlier you start making healthy lifestyle choices, the better off you will be as you get older. This is particularly true when it comes to high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by your body and found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol in order to function properly, but having too much (high cholesterol) puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke. The extra cholesterol that isn’t used by your body builds up in blood vessel walls, causing blockages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having high cholesterol doubles your risk of heart disease.
“The key is to have normal cholesterol levels throughout your lifetime. One misconception is that people can have poorly controlled cholesterol for years, and then decide to take action. By then the plaque could already have built up,” says Dr. Eugenia Gianos, cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Your total cholesterol level is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood. It consists of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also called “bad” cholesterol, which is the cholesterol that blocks your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease. It also consists of high-density lipoproteins (HDL), the “good” cholesterol that helps protect you from heart disease. The higher your HDL, the better. Finally, total cholesterol includes a triglycerides count. These are another type of fat that can build up in the body. High levels of triglycerides and low levels of HDL raise your risk for heart disease.
Children who are physically active, have a healthy diet, aren’t overweight, and don’t have a family history of high cholesterol are at a lower risk for having high cholesterol.
Current guidelines recommend that all children have their cholesterol checked between ages 9 and 12 and then again between ages 17 and 21. Kids with higher risk factors, like diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol, should be checked between ages 2 and 8 and again between ages 12 and 16.
These are the recommended cholesterol levels for children, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
Good: 170 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: 170 to 199 mg/dL
High: 200 mg/dL or higher
Good: 110 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: 110 to 129 mg/dL
High: 130 mg/dL or higher
Good: 45 mg/dL or higher
Borderline: 40 to 45
Low: 40 mg/dL or lower
Good: ages 0 to 9: 75 mg/dL or lower, ages 10 to 19: 90 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: ages 0 to 9: 75 to 99 mg/dL, ages 10 to 19: 90 to 129 mg/dL
High: ages 0 to 9: 100 mg/dL or higher, ages 10 to 19: 130 mg/dL or higher
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, starting at age 20, which is when cholesterol levels can start to go up. As we age, cholesterol levels tend to rise. Men are generally at a higher risk than women. However, a woman’s risk goes up after she hits menopause. For those with high cholesterol, testing is recommended more frequently.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these are the acceptable, borderline, and high cholesterol and triglyceride measurements for adults:
Good: 200 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: 200 to 239 mg/dL
High: 240 mg/dL or higher
Good: 100 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: 130 to 159 mg/dL
High: 160 mg/dL or higher
Good: 40 mg/dL or higher
Low: 39 mg/dL or lower
Good: 149 mg/dL or lower
Borderline: 150 to 199 mg/dL
High: 200 mg/dL or higher
The good news is that lifestyle changes are effective in helping you reduce cholesterol levels. They’re also fairly straightforward and can be done at any age.
- Exercise: Physical activity helps you lose weight and boosts your HDL levels. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate cardio.
- Eat more fiber: Replace white breads and pastas with whole grains.
- Eat healthy fats: Olive oil, avocado, and nuts all have fats that won’t raise your LDL.
- Limit cholesterol intake: Reduce the amount of high-saturated fat foods like cheese, whole milk, and high-fat red meats.
- Quit smoking.
It’s important to remember that everyone is different. Family history and whether or not you have other conditions, such as diabetes, plays a role in your individual risks. Talk to your doctor about your cholesterol levels and ask what he or she thinks your numbers should be.