Is high cholesterol a thing for people under 40?


Q: My athletic mom just had a heart attack at 64. Thankfully she’s fine. I’ve never thought about getting my heart checked. Should I? 

Yes, it’s absolutely a thing! The American Heart Association recommends that all adults ages 20 and older have their cholesterol checked once every five years. Even we healthcare providers need to check our cholesterol.

Screening for elevated cholesterol is widely recommended to identify those who are at increased risk for heart disease. Because you now have a family history of heart disease, it’s even more important you not only check your cholesterol, but also reduce your own risk factors.

Michelle Napral

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. Some cholesterol is healthy. But when there’s too much in the blood, it inflames the vessels and sticks to the walls of arteries, which forms plaque. The plaque narrows these vessels that bring blood to the heart muscles. If the heart doesn’t get enough blood because plaque is restricting flow, it can increase the risk of having a heart attack, stroke or coronary artery disease.

A cholesterol test measures different kinds of cholesterol. HDL is sometimes called the “good” cholesterol because having higher levels lowers the risk of heart disease. It moves out of the bloodstream and does not block your arteries. HDL levels are affected by activity level and diet.

LDL is sometimes referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it can stick to artery walls and block blood flow. LDL levels are affected by diet. Triglycerides are also measured during cholesterol tests. Although they’re not technically cholesterol, triglycerides are a type of fat the body uses to store energy. Having high triglycerides increases the risk of heart disease.

Check it. It’s easy.

Talk with your provider about having your cholesterol checked. It’s an easy way to measure your risk for heart disease. But a good cholesterol result does not guarantee you are in the clear. Other cardiovascular disease risk factors include cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, a parent, sister or brother who got heart disease at a young age, aging and diabetes.

At our clinic, we review cholesterol numbers and risk factors with patients to determine risk of heart disease. If your cholesterol is high, we may also assess for other conditions that are closely linked to high cholesterol, such as diabetes, alcoholism, and thyroid, liver and kidney disease.

Choices for a healthy heart

If you are a young adult with high cholesterol, now is the time to make some lifestyle choices to reduce your risk for heart disease. Cholesterol can be lowered through diet and exercise. Reduce the amount of fat in your meals by eating more whole grains, and fresh vegetables and fruits. Eat lean proteins such as fish, poultry, and legumes, and eat less red meat and processed meats. Use low-fat dairy products and use oils instead of solid fats when cooking. Limit sweets and processed foods like chips, cookies and baked goods.

Exercise raises your good cholesterol, lowers your bad cholesterol, and helps the blood flow better through your body. Be active and choose activities you enjoy. Work up to 40 minutes of moderate to high intensity physical activity at least three days per week. Some activity is better than none.

Medication to lower cholesterol levels is effective and safe, but it is not a substitute for a healthy diet and activity. Not everyone with high cholesterol needs cholesterol medication. Based on your risk factors and cholesterol levels, your provider will help you determine if starting cholesterol lowering medication is appropriate for you. Cholesterol-lowering medication is typically recommended in people who have already had a heart attack or stroke, have known heart disease and diabetes.

Heart disease is a concern for adults of all ages. Be sure to know and understand your risk for heart disease. If you have questions or concerns, see your provider.

Michelle Napral is a nurse practitioner at the University of Minnesota Health Nurse Practitioners Clinic, 3rd Street & Chicago. Send questions to [email protected].