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Step 3: What causes high cholesterol?
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Unhealthy cholesterol levels are linked to having a poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight, age, heredity, and other factors.

Poor diet

The unhealthy foods most likely to raise your LDL cholesterol are those that contain saturated fat and trans-fatty acids.

  • Saturated fats are found in animal products -- such as high-fat cuts of beef, lamb, pork, butter, cream, ice cream, whole milk, cheeses, egg yolks, and foods made with these products.
  • Trans-fatty acids are found in fried foods, commercially baked goods (donuts, cookies, crackers), processed foods, and margarines. Read more about margarine and butter.

Lack of exercise

Lack of physical activity can lead to high LDL cholesterol. On the other hand, regular exercise can increase good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, decrease your risk for heart disease, and improve your overall health.

Being overweight

Overweight people often don't have enough HDL (good) cholesterol, and their triglycerides are often too high. Their LDL (bad) cholesterol may be too high as well. Furthermore, obesity increases the risk for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which put you at risk for developing heart disease.

Older age

Cholesterol levels tend to rise in both men and women as they get older. This is very important because heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men AND women:

  • Men -- on average, men develop cardiovascular disease 10 - 15 years earlier than women. Men have an increased risk of dying from heart disease at a younger age than women.
  • Women -- following menopause, cholesterol levels rise significantly. More specifically, LDL (bad) cholesterol increases and HDL (good) cholesterol decreases at this phase in a woman's life, putting her at increased the risk for heart disease.


Genetics play an important role in determining your blood cholesterol level. Children and teens should have their cholesterol checked if family members have had either early heart disease or total cholesterol levels greater than 240 mg/dL. Early heart disease is defined as a father, brother, uncle, or grandfather who developed heart disease before age 55, or a mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother before age 65.

Other causes of high cholesterol

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Stress
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Some medications (progestins, steroids)
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome


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Review Date: 12/31/2012
Reviewed By: Glenn Gandelman, MD, MPH, FACC Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College; Private Practice specializing in Cardiovascular Disease in Greenwich, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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