How to Manage High Cholesterol for Better Senior Health


While high cholesterol becomes more common as we get older, you might be surprised to learn that it can affect those of any age, even teenagers and children. Perhaps that’s why at least 94 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, according to the CDC. About 12% of those over the age of 20 have been diagnosed with very high cholesterol – a number above 240 mg/dL. And that’s a dangerous thing, because high cholesterol puts seniors at greater risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack or stroke.

Let’s look at where cholesterol comes from, how it gets so high, and how to manage your high cholesterol for better senior health and wellness.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is defined by the National Cancer Institute as “a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver, and found in the blood and in all cells of the body. Cholesterol is important for good health and is needed for making cell walls, tissues, hormones, vitamin D, and bile acid.” In addition to making about 75% of the cholesterol in the liver, the body takes the other 25% of cholesterol from foods you eat[1]. While some cholesterol is obviously essential for bodily functions, too much cholesterol can begin to build up in the veins and arteries of the body, and that can lead to cardiovascular problems.

When you get a blood test for cholesterol levels, you’ll hear about two particular types: HDL and LDL. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as “good” cholesterol because it actually leads to a lower risk of heart disease. There is also LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. This is “bad” cholesterol because it is associated with a higher risk of adverse cardiovascular events. Keeping both of these in a healthy range is the ideal scenario[2].

There is also a third measurement for triglycerides, which are a type of fat found in your bloodstream. The calories you take in that your body doesn’t use right away are turned into triglycerides[3].

What is a healthy range for cholesterol? Here’s a breakdown from the CDC[4]:

·         Total cholesterol should be about 150 mg/dL

·         LDL cholesterol should be about 100 mg/dL

·         HDL cholesterol should be at least 40 mg/dL in men and at least 50 mg/dL in women

·         Triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dL

However, WebMD points out that those numbers might be a bit different for the elderly. For instance, total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL for older adults, and LDL cholesterol should be below 130 mg/dL – or much lower than that for those at risk of heart attacks or stroke. Elevated levels of cholesterol are not uncommon as you get older; in fact, 61% of women aged 65 to 74 have cholesterol levels of at least 240 mg/dL[5].

It’s important to remember that high cholesterol and high triglycerides have no symptoms at all. The only way to know what the numbers are is to have a blood test. You might hear this referred to as a lipid panel.

How to Treat High Cholesterol

If the numbers are not where they should be, your doctor might recommend that you first try lifestyle changes that have been proven to bring cholesterol down naturally. However, if those lifestyle changes don’t work, or if you have other risk factors that make it essential to bring down your risk of cardiovascular problems, your doctor might prescribe medications that bring the numbers to within the acceptable range.

Statins are the most common medication prescribed for high cholesterol. Statins are effective in lowering cholesterol levels by decreasing the natural production of cholesterol in the liver. Some common names include Zocor, Crestor, Lipitor, and Pravachol[6]. However, some people have trouble tolerating statins due to side effects, so non-statin medications might be prescribed. Some of those common names include Welchol, Locholest, Lopid, Zetia, Praluent, and more[7].

Johns Hopkins Medicine points out that doctors must consider other prescription drugs you might be taking, as well as any supplements, to ensure there are no interactions. And it is also important to remember that the side effects of statins, such as nausea and headaches, can be worth tolerating if the benefits of a statin are especially working for you. Speak with your doctor about which medications might be right for you.

Ways to Lower Cholesterol without Medications

There are some excellent ways you can try to lower your risk of high cholesterol and if you already have it, bring those numbers down to a more manageable level. You might even be able to avoid medication! Here are some options:

·         Get regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes, or 2 ½ hours, of exercise every week to maintain good health. Breaking this up into equal periods of 30 minutes, five times each week, is a great idea. But you can also break it up into smaller blocks if you need to, such as taking a 15-minute walk in the morning and in the evening. When you exercise, don’t forget to wear an on-the-go medical alert pendant for complete protection. 

·         Watch what you eat. Look to a diet high in fruit, whole grains, and vegetables. Opt for low-fat dairy and plenty of poultry and fish. Use nuts as a savory treat. The Mediterranean Diet is a great example of how to eat properly to avoid health problems, such as high cholesterol and triglycerides. Pay special attention to the fats in your diet, and avoid saturated and trans fats, as these are associated with high cholesterol[8]. To that end, you can also consider a plant-based diet if your doctor thinks it would be beneficial for you, which the Journal of the American Heart Association reports is a great way to effectively lower your cholesterol.

·         Stop smoking.  Study after study has proven that smoking has a negative effect on every part of the body[9]. There is even a connection between smoking and cholesterol, as those who smoke tend to have a 20% higher chance of high total cholesterol and a 60% chance of a low HDL[10]. The good news is that by stopping smoking, you can begin to reduce that risk.

·         Use alcohol only in moderation. Heavy drinking affects the body in adverse ways, including elevated cholesterol levels.

·         Stay at a healthy weight. Did you know that those who are overweight and drop even 5% of their body weight can see improvements in their cholesterol and triglycerides[11]? Eating well can help you stay at the proper weight. As you embark on a new diet and work on weight loss, it’s a good idea to invest in medical alert technology to help keep you safe. Not only does this serve as peace of mind as you incorporate more physical activity into your life, it also helps if you run into problems while adjusting to a new diet, such as episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or your body reacting differently to medications as you lose weight.

·         Look to certain foods and supplements. In addition to being careful about your diet, remember to add certain foods, such as oats, beans, fruits, vegetables, and other foods with soluble fiber. Avocados can also lower your cholesterol. Some supplements have been shown to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels, including psyllium fiber supplements, fish oil, Coenzyme Q10 (simply known as CoQ10), plant sterols, fenugreek, and niacin (also known as vitamin B3)[12]. Always speak with your doctor before adding any sort of supplements to your regimen.

Take Advantage of Healthy Momentum

Are you changing your lifestyle habits and taking new medications to reduce your cholesterol levels and reduce your chances of cardiovascular problems? Making a few small changes here and there can add up to something big!

Take advantage of that momentum toward good health by engaging in other good-for-you activities, such as clearing your home of clutter, getting in touch with old and new friends to expand your social circle, and renewing your commitment to wearing sunscreen for better health. You can also opt for aging in place solutions for your home, as well as investing in a mobile medical alert system with fall detection. These small devices pack an enormous punch when it comes to peace of mind, as they allow you to live more confidently. Let that new momentum of doing good things for your body and mind carry you into a whole new world of health and happiness.