8 Cholesterol Stats That Could Change Your Life

by Jeanine Barone Health Writer

Has your doctor told you that you may be one of the 11% of adults in the U.S. who have high cholesterol, mostly due to high levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol that increases your risk of heart disease and stroke? Or maybe you’re in the group of adult Americans (16%) who have low levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol, which is not so great either since HDL’s function is to remove bad cholesterol from artery walls. You may have tuned out your doctor’s warnings because—we get it—what do all these numbers mean anyways? But keep reading; we’ll explain some key stats and figures that may help put your cholesterol levels in perspective.

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Your Cholesterol Numbers

There are three numbers that the CDC says every adult (over 20 years old) should keep track of with doctor check-ins every five years. Your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. And your HDL (“good”) cholesterol should be at least 50 mg/dL in women and at least 40 mg/dL in men. Your total cholesterol should be between 125 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL. Once you know and understand your personal cholesterol levels, other statistics and study findings carry more weight and importance for your health.

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97 = Greater Risk of Dying

Here is a case of having too much of a good thing: When researchers examined men and women in Denmark, they found that very high HDL (“good”) levels—greater than 97 mg/dL in men and 135 mg/dL in women—were associated with higher death rates. According to Aryan Aiyer, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, what’s important is how well HDL functions—not how much of it you have.

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100 = Increased Risk of Infectious Disease

Scientists analyzed two different studies in Copenhagen that followed thousands of individuals for at least 10 years. They found that those with very high HDL levels (over 100 mg/dL) had a significantly higher risk of having a bacterial infection, such as bacterial pneumonia or a urinary tract infection, that required a hospital stay. As to why, Borge G. Nordestgaard, M.D., study author and chief physician at Copenhagen University Hospital in Sweden says, “With higher levels of HDL, blood leukocytes [white blood cells] are lower, and blood leukocytes help fight infections.”

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12 = LDL Increase from Drinking Espresso

According to Daniel Soffer, M.D., an internist and lipidologist at the Penn Medicine Center for Preventive Cardiology, “Espresso is delicious, but it does raise LDL levels.” Over the years, researchers found that drinking unfiltered coffee—such as espresso—can increase LDL levels. Analyzing data from several studies, scientists found that regularly drinking at least six cups a day may increase LDL cholesterol by 12 mg/dL. The culprit appears to be coffee oils that a paper filter removes. These affect a receptor on cells in the intestines that’s involved in cholesterol regulation.

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197 = Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer

Researchers followed more than 17,000 men in Finland for 17 years and found that those in the group with the highest cholesterol levels—more than 197 mg/dL—had an increased risk for prostate cancer compared with men in the group with the lowest cholesterol levels. According to study author Teemu Murtola, M.D., professor of urology at Tampere University in Finland, “High cholesterol levels may be linked with an elevated risk of especially aggressive prostate cancer [which spreads] through a number of potential mechanisms.” For example, an abundance of cholesterol helps cancer cells survive and evade the body’s immune response.

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114 = Percent Increased Risk for Alzheimer’s

Researchers analyzed several studies where the subjects had their cholesterol levels recorded when they were middle aged and were then followed-up for years, sometimes decades, later. High cholesterol was linked with a 114% increased risk of developing AD in later life (65+ years old). According to Dr. Soffer, there’s an interesting biological link between cholesterol and AD: A single gene is associated with high LDL as well as an increased risk of AD, which could explain why your grandpa had both.

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54 = Percent Increased RA Risk for Women

In Sweden, researchers studied middle aged men and women who were part of a large health survey. According to study author Carl Turesson, M.D., professor of rheumatology at Lund University in Sweden, “We found an association between high cholesterol and a 54% increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women only—not in men.” This suggests, he says, that hormone related factors may explain the association.

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160 = Greater Risk for Weaker Bones

A study looked at a small number of overweight, postmenopausal women. The investigators found that women with high LDL cholesterol (greater than 160 mg/dL) were at a higher risk of having weak bones (osteopenia) compared with those who had normal levels. According to study author Ziru Li, Ph.D., research investigator of molecular and integrative physiology at Michigan Medicine (University of Michigan), “Evidence has shown that LDL cholesterol...inhibits bone formation and causes bone tissue to break down.”

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182 = Higher Odds of Kidney Disease

According to Megan Kamath, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, “Chronic kidney disease (CKD) has been associated with high cholesterol since the 1980s.” In a study conducted in China, researchers analyzed data from thousands of people who had an annual physical. During a six-year follow-up, those with a cholesterol level over 182 mg/dL had a higher risk of developing CKD. One reason may be because high cholesterol can cause specific white blood cells (macrophages) to damage key kidney structures.

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Do Your Numbers Need Work?

Discussing numbers may seem like an oh-so boring and impractical math class. But high cholesterol could result in far reaching health difficulties. Follow your doctor’s recommendations to lower your number. It may mean reducing saturated fat in your diet, losing weight if you’re overweight, quitting smoking, or taking medication.

Jeanine Barone
Meet Our Writer
Jeanine Barone

Jeanine Barone is a scientist and journalist with an eclectic background. She’s a nutritionist and exercise physiologist who regularly writes about travel, health, fitness, and food for numerous top-tier publications. Jeanine enjoys active travel, especially long-distance cycling and cross-country skiing.