April 25, 2012 -- The number of American adults with high cholesterol is on the decline, according to the latest data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.
Slightly more than 13% of U.S. adults had high cholesterol in 2009-2010 -- a 27% drop from the 18% with high cholesterol a decade earlier, the CDC says.
High cholesterol -- levels of 240 milligrams per deciliter of blood or higher -- is a major risk factor for heart attacks.
The CDC researchers didn't examine reasons for the decline. But experts who reviewed the findings for WebMD credit the increased use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and healthier diets.
Previous research in people aged 65 and older showed that "the drop in bad LDL cholesterol levels from 2001 to 2006 paralleled an increase in statin use," says American Heart Association President Gordon Tomaselli, MD, head of cardiology at Johns Hopkins.
"As the CDC researchers delve further into this data, they will likely find the same thing is going on," he says.
More than 255 million prescriptions for statins were filled in 2010, up from 210 million in 2006, according to IMS Health.
Meanwhile, more people are eating heart-healthy diets, says Robert Eckel, MD, a heart specialist at the University of Colorado in Denver. "Data show that people are eating fewer of the bad, artery-clogging types of fat -- trans fats and saturated fats," he says.
The big question, Tomaselli says, is whether the gains in cholesterol will translate into fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths.
"What we really need is long-term data that tells us if people are living longer and having fewer cardiovascular events," he says.
There are two major types of cholesterol. "Bad" LDL cholesterol can build up on the walls inside your arteries and increase your chances of getting heart disease. The lower your LDL cholesterol number, the lower your risk.
When it comes to HDL cholesterol -- "good" cholesterol -- the higher the number, the lower your risk. This is because HDL cholesterol protects against heart disease by taking the "bad" cholesterol out of your blood and keeping it from building up in your arteries.
Both high total cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol levels or low HDL levels can increase risk of heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the U.S.
While the CDC report was generally positive, some groups fared better than others. Among adults aged 40 to 59, total cholesterol levels fell in men but not in women. Women in that age group mostly likely buck the trend because LDL levels rise at menopause, Eckel says.
Also, about 12% of women and 31% of men had low HDL in 2009-2010, the report says.
The new findings are based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2009-2010.