Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Leveling Down: High cholesterol remains a quieter community health crisis.

COVID-19 is the ever-evolving public crisis we talk about daily. But there is another widespread, enduring and far-quieter potential killer still gripping our country and communities.

High cholesterol comes without symptoms until—if left untreated—it’s too late.

That’s part of the reason it continues to afflict nearly 40%, or roughly 93 million, of American adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So, despite a dramatic drop since 2000 in the number of Americans with high cholesterol—the CDC says about a third fewer Americans have high cholesterol now than in 2000—it’s clearly still a crisis impacting our communities. It’s not just an adult crisis, either. Though most common among men 45 and over and women over 55, 7% of U.S. children age 6 to 19 also have perilous levels of the plaque-like substance that can clog arteries and restrict blood flow.

Consequences can be dire. According to a 2020 America’s Health Rankings’ (AHR) report, elevated LDL—or “bad”—cholesterol doubles the risk of heart disease, the country’s leading cause of death. It’s also a major risk factor for stroke, the fifth-leading killer.

That’s because too much LDL can build up to eventually block a coronary artery and cause a heart attack or limit blood flow to the brain and trigger a stroke.

The CDC reports that heart disease and strokes combine to claim more than 868,000 American lives each year, deaths made all the more tragic by how preventable they are.

“We know with confidence that there are many steps we can take to help modify our cholesterol levels,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross. “Regular screenings, a healthier diet, weight loss, more exercise, and prescribed medications can all dramatically lower our cholesterol levels and our risk.”


Testing, Treatment

Because high cholesterol comes without symptoms until it’s sometimes too late, it too often goes untreated. An illustration: the CDC says that only 55% of adults who could benefit from proven cholesterol-lowering medications, the most passive approach to controlling the problem, actually take them.

That’s part of why the American Heart Association urges adults 20 and older to get bloodwork every four to six years to check cholesterol levels. Should screenings reveal dangerous ranges, experts across the board share certain recommendations to lower cholesterol:

  • Cholesterol-lowering medications when prescribed. These include those in the widely used statin family.
  • Diets low in saturated fats. Saturated, or “bad,” fats are the main culprits leading to high LDL.
  • Effective weight management programs. Excess body fat makes it harder for the body to eliminate bad cholesterol from the blood. So discuss with your doctor a food and fitness plan that gets you to, or keeps you at, your ideal weight.
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking makes LDL “stickier,” meaning it is more prone to cling and clog arteries. It also lowers HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, which tends to carry cholesterol away from artery walls. So, quitting helps on two levels.

Largely due to a marked increase in Americans who take cholesterol-lowering medication, watch their diets, and no longer smoke, the percentage of U.S. adults with high LDL more than halved from 1976 to 2010, reports the CDC, with those age 65 to 74 making the most progress. Just 30% of them had high LDL by 2010, down from 72% in the late ’70s.


Here to Help

Despite the dramatic progress over the past several decades, there’s still plenty of ground to cover in the fight against high cholesterol. Having health insurance that covers cholesterol screening, counseling and treatment can really help.

Capital Blue Cross, for instance, offers a variety of preventive services with no cost share to members who have standard benefit coverage. Services related to healthy cholesterol levels may include:

  • An annual preventive visit to review health, as well as family and personal risk factors.
  • Preventive medications such as statins. See a full covered medication list at
  • A lab test, called a lipid panel, to check cholesterol levels.
  • Blood pressure screenings.
  • Behavioral counseling for cardiovascular disease prevention.

“High cholesterol doesn’t have to remain the potentially deadly risk it is for so many,” Dr. Chambers said. “There’s a lot we can do to decrease dangerous levels relatively quickly if we recognize the danger in letting it go unchecked and make a commitment to managing it.”

For more information about Capital Blue Cross, visit

This column is sponsored by Capital Blue Cross.


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