The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pat yourself on the back, America. Your cholesterol levels are holding steady, CDC says.


When it comes to our health as a nation, we’re not doing so great. Some cancer rates are climbing sharply. Nearly one in eight Americans has diabetes. And we are ballooning in weight, with obesity rates at record highs.

Amid that grim picture, government researchers on Thursday had a glimmer of good news: Our cholesterol numbers, which have improved significantly over the past 17 years, are holding steady.

Since 1999, the number of Americans suffering from high total cholesterol has declined from 18.3 percent to 12.4 percent in 2016.

“It’s gratifying news,” said Margaret Carroll, health statistician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, author of the new data brief.

Health experts attribute the positive results to several key factors: the public's growing awareness of high cholesterol’s dangers, more people's health-conscious diets, the phaseout of artificial trans fats in the food supply and the use of cholesterol-lowering statin medications.

Carroll, who has worked at CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics for more than four decades, has watched our relationship with cholesterol change dramatically. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that scientists began to understand and push the idea that we could battle the negative effects of high cholesterol. Since then, there have been periodic declines in the nation’s high cholesterol rates, CDC data show. But the trend since the turn of the century has been a sustained decrease.

That time period overlaps neatly with the years when cholesterol-lowering medication became widespread, particularly among adults 40 and older who are most at risk for high cholesterol and heart disease. From 2003 to 2012, the percentage of adults older than 40 and taking statins and other cholesterol medications increased from 20 percent to 28 percent, according to a 2014 CDC report.

Thursday’s CDC report shows where particular progress needs to continue. The prevalence of high total cholesterol was greatest among adults ages 40 to 59 — particularly for women. By race and gender, white women also had the greatest prevalence of high total cholesterol.

There are two primary kinds of cholesterol: bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), which can lead to plaque buildup that clogs arteries; and good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL), which helps ferry that bad cholesterol through your bloodstream to your liver to be expunged.

And the latest brief reports that Americans now have more good cholesterol overall. From 2007 to 2016, people suffering from low levels of good cholesterol declined from 22 percent to 18 percent.

Without more data, it’s difficult to pin that HDL improvement on a single factor, said Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado and a former president of the American Heart Association.

“It can’t be because we’re losing weight, because that’s still going up, but it could be statin use. It could be a result of the decline in smoking. Or a combination of factors,” Eckel said. “Regardless, the message here is a good one. And it reflects other things we’re seeing, like the number of heart attacks which have gone down, too.

“But we should also keep in mind that the problem isn’t solved. More than 800,000 people die a year of cardiovascular disease,” he said. “We have to continue the progress.”

Read more:

Powerful heart drug sharply cuts risks for cardiac patients on statins

Major drug study opens up vast new opportunities in combating heart disease

Trans fats once were good for us — and then heart disease kicked in

The 100-year-old scientist who pushed the FDA to ban artificial trans fat

America's new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn't