What do women need to know about high cholesterol?

Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2024

While heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women, it is still often considered a “man’s disease.” Because of that, many women don’t get the regular screenings they need to ensure their hearts are healthy. One important screening is a panel to check for high cholesterol.

High cholesterol doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms, so it’s important to check women’s cholesterol regularly.

Keep reading to get the facts about cholesterol in women, including why screening is so important.

Is high cholesterol different for women than men?

At its most basic, there is no difference: For both women and men, cholesterol is cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the body and used in the production of certain hormones, vitamin D, and substances used in the digestive process.

Cholesterol is not necessarily a bad thing. Some cholesterol is necessary, and your body produces that cholesterol. Cholesterol can also be found in foods from animal sources, including meat, dairy and eggs. Having too much cholesterol can be a hazard to your health.

An excess of cholesterol, also known as hyperlipidemia, can contribute to a number of health issues, including atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries) and coronary artery disease.

There are some differences in how the female body handles cholesterol. Estrogen, the female sex hormone, raises HDL cholesterol, which is also known as “good cholesterol.” This type of cholesterol is protective of the heart.

Hormones can also play a role in the development of high LDL, which is known as “bad cholesterol,” as well as triglycerides, which are a type of fat that contributes to heart disease. After going through menopause, many women have higher triglyceride levels due to factors including increased weight and physical inactivity.

How is high cholesterol treated in women?

If you are diagnosed with high LDL, high total cholesterol, and/or high triglycerides, your medical provider likely will recommend first trying to reduce cholesterol with lifestyle changes.

Exercising regularly and eating a diet low in saturated fat can have a big impact on cholesterol levels. Losing weight and quitting smoking, if necessary, can also help lower cholesterol levels to a healthier range.

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to lower your cholesterol effectively, medication may be recommended. There are several types of medication used to lower cholesterol, including a class of drugs known as statins.

Are statins beneficial to women?

The short answer is yes. Statins can be used effectively to lower LDL and total cholesterol in women. These medications work by causing the liver to produce less cholesterol.

Past guidelines for prescribing statins were numbers-based and recommended statin use based on a person’s LDL cholesterol level. Recent recommendations advise taking a broader look at a person’s health and lifestyle to determine whether statins are appropriate, including age, gender, race, smoking status, family medical history, and any other medical conditions a person has.

This personalized assessment can help your provider make a recommendation about whether a statin is appropriate for you. Even if a statin is prescribed, a healthy lifestyle is essential for lowering your cholesterol into a healthier range. Medication and lifestyle habits work together to lower your cholesterol and protect your heart.

Learn more

Women have unique heart health needs and concerns. The Women’s Heart Center of Georgia Heart Institute is here to help, offering a full scope of services related to women’s heart health.

Laura Divoky, MD, serves as Georgia Heart Institute’s medical director of noninvasive cardiology for the Southern Market and medical director of the Women’s Heart Center.