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Americans' Cholesterol Levels Shrink, Even As Waistlines Expand

Americans are heavier than ever, yet the amount of cholesterol in our blood is on the decline.
Americans are heavier than ever, yet the amount of cholesterol in our blood is on the decline.

A curious — and good — thing has happened on the road to Obesity Nation: the share of the U.S. adult population with high cholesterol has dropped.

Data just out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that only 13.4 percent of adults in this country have high cholesterol, according to data collected in 2009 and 2010.

A decade earlier, 18.3 percent of adults in the U.S. had high cholesterol.

High cholesterol starts at 240 milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood. Having high cholesterol more than doubles the risk of a heart attack compared with desirable total cholesterol, which is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter.

The government had set a public health goal of getting the proportion of adults with high cholesterol down to 17 percent or less by 2010.

Lately, the obesity wave appears to have leveled off, but at a pretty high mark. Some two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight.

Being overweight can raise your cholesterol. So what gives?

"Experts believe it's largely because so many Americans take cholesterol-lowering drugs, but dropping smoking rates and other factors also contributed," the Associated Press reports.

Drugs called statins, such as Lipitor and Zocor, lower cholesterol and are enormously popular. Last year, 264 million prescriptions were dispensed for drugs to reduce cholesterol, according to data from IMS Health.

But some are asking whether it's such a good idea to prescribe statins to people who haven't had a heart attack already. The Food and Drug Administration said in February that the drugs' instructions should note reports of memory loss and diabetes among people taking them.

The agency said, however, that the new information shouldn't scare people away from taking statins. The drugs's value in preventing heart disease is clear, FDA said.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.