Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver. Cholesterol (kuh-LES-tuh-rawl) helps build cell membranes and is used to make hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, and vitamin D.
Most parents probably don't think about what cholesterol means for their kids. But heart disease has its roots in childhood. So high levels of cholesterol in children can increase their chances of heart disease and strokes as adults.
Where Does Cholesterol Come From?
The liver makes all the cholesterol that the body needs. But cholesterol also comes from some of the foods we eat. Foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fat also can increase the liver's production of cholesterol.
These foods from animals contain cholesterol:
dairy products (including milk, cheese, and ice cream)
Foods from plants, like vegetables, fruits, and grains, don't have any cholesterol.
What Are the Types of Cholesterol?
Cholesterol in the blood doesn't move through the body on its own. It combines with proteins to travel through the bloodstream. Cholesterol and protein traveling together are called lipoproteins (lie-poh-PRO-teenz).
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are the lipoproteines that most of us have heard about.
Low-density lipoproteins, or "bad cholesterol," can build up on the walls of the arteries. Cholesterol and other substances in the blood form plaque. Plaque buildup can make blood vessels become stiffer, narrower, or blocked. Plaque makes it easier for blood clots to form. A blood clot can block a narrowed artery and cause a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis (ah-theh-roe-skleh-ROE-siss), or hardening of the arteries, also leads to decreased blood flow to vital organs, including the brain, intestines, and kidneys.
High-density lipoproteins, or "good cholesterol," carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver. In the liver, cholesterol is broken down and removed from the body.
High levels of LDL and low levels of HDL increase a person's risk of heart disease.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Three major things contribute to high cholesterol levels:
diet: eating a diet high in fats, particularly saturated fat and trans fat
heredity: having a parent or close family member with high cholesterol
have diabetes, high blood pressure, or smoke cigarettes
Your doctor can order a blood test to check your child's cholesterol. Your child may have to fast (nothing to eat or drink, except water, for 12 hours) before the test.
According to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) guidelines, the ranges of total and LDL cholesterol for kids and teens 2–18 years old are:
Total cholesterol (mg/dL)
LDL cholesterol, (mg/dL)
Less than 170
Less than 110
200 or greater
130 or greater
mg/dL = milligrams per deciliter
How Is High Cholesterol Treated?
If your child has an LDL cholesterol level of 130 mg/dL or higher, your doctor will talk to you about lifestyle changes or refer you to a dietitian. The goals are to:
reduce fat (especially saturated fat and trans fat) and cholesterol in the diet
lose weight, if needed
Your doctor will probably do a cholesterol check again after 3–6 months of lifestyle changes.
Medicine might be considered for kids 10 and older whose LDL cholesterol is 190 mg/dL or higher if changes in diet and exercise haven't worked. Kids with risk factors, such as diabetes or high blood pressure or a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, may need treatment at lower LDL levels.
5 Ways to Lower Cholesterol
First, check your own cholesterol level — and if it's high, ask to have your kids' levels checked.
Here are 5 ways to help keep your family's cholesterol in control:
Serve a heart-healthy diet, including: - vegetables, fruit, and whole grains - lean meats and poultry, fish, nuts, beans, and soy products - nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products - healthy fats, like those found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils