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CDC: High cholesterol less prevalent than it was 40 years ago, still a 'public health problem'

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says eggs are a major source of cholesterol in the American diet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says eggs are a major source of cholesterol in the American diet.
Adam Berry/Getty Images

High cholesterol isn't as common as it used to be across the U.S., according to federal researchers, but it's still a "significant public health problem."

The National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released a report on Thursday that said the prevalence of high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – which health providers often refer to as "bad cholesterol" – dropped over the past four decades, from 59 percent to 27 percent.

Alexis Gomez, a family nurse practitioner at St. John's Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles, said that trend isn't so apparent on the southside.

"We are getting more patients with high cholesterol," he said.

He's referring to "bad cholesterol," which earned its distinction because when too much of it circulates through the bloodstream, it can build up on the walls of the arteries, which carry blood to the brain and the heart. That can, in turn, form plaque, which can result in clots and cause strokes or heart attacks.

But there's also good cholesterol. The American Heart Association says high-density lipoprotein (HPL) cholesterol, as opposed to low-density, appears to protect people against heart attacks.

High cholesterol in South L.A.

Gomez says South L.A. patients with high levels of bad cholesterol can attribute it to two things:

"Most of the time it's diet and a lack of exercise or physical activity," he said. (Foods like eggs, chicken and beef are high in cholesterol, for example.)

Other chronic conditions can also exacerbate high cholesterol counts. The insulin regimens that people use to manage their diabetes can increase cholesterol levels, said Gomez, because the insulin causes a certain hormone to kick into overdrive ands "overmetabolize fat," which increases cholesterol. And high blood pressure damages blood vessel tissue, which makes it easier for cholesterol to attach to those blood vessels and harden, which ups a person's risk for heart disease.

About 1 in 8 South L.A. adults has diabetes and local health providers, including Gomez, say high blood pressure is rampant in the area.

The CDC authors also wrote that they found a trend of decline in the number of Americans who were eating a lot of saturated fat, some major sources of which are pizza, ice cream and ribs. Between the 1970s and 1994, the percentage of adults eating a diet low in saturated fats increased substantially, from 25 percent to 41 percent. It plateaued for the next decade-plus, though.

"Fat that isn't saturated is really easy for the body to get rid of and use it like energy," said Gomez. "Saturated fat is really hard for the body to use." Which is why eating too much of contributes to obesity – because the body doesn't know what to do with all that extra, unusable fat.

Cutting back on the fat intake would help with the cholesterol – while the CDC said the number of people who took medication to lower their cholesterol rose 18 percent over the last 30 years, Gomez said in South L.A., it's often not as simple as writing a prescription for high-cholesterol patients.

"Most of the medication we use for cholesterol can also affect the liver," he said – and in many of the patients, excess fat has already caused problems in the liver. About 1 in 3 adults in South L.A. are obese.

Diet, exercise and good management of any chronic diseases are key to keeping cholesterol down, said Gomez. "If your diet is really high in glucose or carbs, you'll store fat really easily," he said.