Good and Bad Cholesterol and Aging


The health and food industries can sometimes send mixed messages regarding an important substance present in our food and bodies. One of those substances is cholesterol. Many seniors change their diets or medications in order to foster “good” and cut down on “bad” cholesterol, often with a limited understanding of what cholesterol is and why the two types matter.

Doctors often mention as a goal lowering a senior’s total cholesterol, good and bad. They particularly recommend this for those over 65 and those who have a history of heart complications in their families. An understanding of why that would be important is a great way to improve upon health goals for a senior.

The Two Types of Cholesterol

Good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, picks up extra cholesterol floating in a person’s bloodstream. The Mayo Clinic terms them cholesterol scavengers. Their role is to take excess cholesterol and bring it to the liver to be broken down and expelled. Raising HDL cholesterol levels means that the body can better handle bad cholesterol, propelling it to the liver to be ejected from the body.

Bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, is actually an important part of the body’s ecosystem. Various organs and tissues need LDL cholesterol, but they do not need very much of it. The excess floats around in the bloodstream and can clog arteries. A clogged artery restricts blood flow, causing cells further down the way to die from a lack of oxygen and nutrients from the blood. This creation of plaques, which is the name for areas of cholesterol buildup, is called coronary artery disease, which can cause major health complications. 

Little Known Fact: 

Cholesterol is in every cell in the body and especially in the brain, which is made up in large part of pure cholesterol.

Everyone needs some cholesterol in the diet, even those who have some risk of heart disease. Cholesterol is in every cell in the body and especially in the brain, which is made up in large part of pure cholesterol.

Yet  too much of a good thing can be bad; LDL cholesterol should be limited, depending on the person’s current levels, and his or her overall heart health and risk of developing heart disease. A senior is more at risk of developing heart disease than a younger person is, and should be monitoring cholesterol levels closely with a doctor, especially if he or she has high blood pressure, diabetes, smokes cigarettes, is very overweight, or has trouble being mobile and active.

Some seniors may find that they have multiple risk factors which are all related; maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen usually (but not always) results in weight loss, more manageable blood pressure, overall easier mobility, and healthier blood glucose levels. However, any major changes in routine should be discussed with a doctor first in order to make sure the plan works for the senior’s specific healthcare needs. No one should be fooled by fad diets or exercise trends which claim to miraculously cure a given health concern, including ones which claim to lower cholesterol. 

A senior may well find that the first line of defense when it comes to cholesterol is in the kitchen. 

The changes needed to lower LDL cholesterol and boost HDL cholesterol are typically a combination of dietary and medical solutions, including medication. Ideally, seniors at high risk for heart disease should try to manage it through dietary changes first, since all medications come with possible side effects or potentially negative interactions with a current medication regimen. After talking his or her situation over with a doctor, a senior may well find that the first line of defense when it comes to cholesterol is in the kitchen.

A study by Muldoon et al. published in The American Journal of Medicine showed that a medicine (lovastatin) used to treat high cholesterol decreased mental functioning in middle aged adults, and so should not be used or prescribed liberally to seniors. 

Little Known Fact:

Lovastatin, a drug used to treat high cholesterol, decreased mental functioning in middle-aged adults. 

How Cholesterol Is Affected by Aging

Managing cholesterol levels is important at any age, but is especially so when people pass age 65. In fact, acccording to Jay Schwartz at Livestrong, data from the government’s National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) show that men’s risk for high cholesterol rises after age 45; women’s after age 55. Throughout their lifetimes, women tend to have higher “good” (HDL) cholesterol than men, which is a protective factor against cardiovascular disease.

Women’s Higher Average “Good” Cholesterol Protects them throughout Much of Life

Men 42-44 mg/dl 42-44 mg/dl 42-44 mg/dl 42-44 mg/dl 42-44 mg/dl
Women 53 mg/dl 57 mg/dl 58 mg/dl 60 mg/dl 62 mg/dl
Age (Years) <30 30-39 40-49 50-59 >60

 Women have an Advantage with Average “Bad” Cholesterol too

Men 136 mg/dl 149 mg/dl 162 mg/dl 165 mg/dl
Women 126 mg/dl 129 mg/dl 136 mg/dl 159 mg/dl
Age (Years) <30 30 – 39 40-49 50 – 59

However, after menopause, women’s cholesterol levels skyrocket; therefore women, too, must be on the lookout for ways to keep cholesterol levels low as they age.

Total Cholesterol Average Measurements Show Increasing Risk for Women and Men as They Age (Menopause Catapults Women into Risk Zones)

(Over 200 mg/dl is a risk factor)

Men 185 mg/dl 205 mg/dl 208
Women 183 mg/dl 194 mg/dl 219 mg/dl
Age <40 40-49 50-59

Lifestyle Choices Make a Huge Difference

Since the medications used to treat high LDL cholesterol may as a side effect cause harmful cognitive decline, which is a huge risk in seniors in the first place, seniors and their caregivers should work hard through proper diet and checkups to prevent cholesterol levels from becoming unmanageable. As the body’s cells begin to weaken and heal more slowly from illnesses and injuries, proper circulation and nutrients to those cells is integral to good health. If HDL is high and LDL is low, the body can continue processing out excess cholesterol and use just the cholesterol it needs to make repairs, especially to the brain, where cholesterol plays a part in sending messages throughout this most important organ. 

As with many health conditions, desirable levels of cholesterol are achieved through good diet and exercise. 

Aging is when people’s less-informed lifestyle choices catch up to them. The choice to smoke cigarettes or not participate in an active lifestyle can weigh heavily on the body after years of such improper use. Removing the dangerous effects of these choices, or reversing the results of disabilities or diseases which make active living difficult, is harder the older a person is. In order to answer the unique challenge of repairing damage in an aging body, doctors need to be involved, and support must be provided for the necessary changes to take place.

Many seniors and their families also grapple with a huge factor in determining their health: lack of money. Being unable to spend time being active, or unable to eat truly healthy foods, as well as a lack of access to doctors and treatments for underlying conditions, can all make cholesterol a dangerous threat to good health for a senior. If seniors cannot pay for medications, doctor’s visits, blood tests, and the ingredients for a healthy lifestyle, it is difficult or impossible to get them to manage their cholesterol levels properly. Such seniors and/or their caregivers should seek out federal and community programs to help support efforts to keep the seniors healthy in spite of financial constraints.

Overall, the best answer to the question of cholesterol levels is to talk with a doctor who is familiar with the senior’s health and discuss what options are best. No single miracle food, exercise regimen, or medication will remedy the problem of unbalanced cholesterol, but information, planning, and action will make large headway in prolonging the life and health of seniors.


American Heart Association. (March 23, 2016.). Good vs. Bad Cholesterol. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. LDL and HDL: “Bad” and “Good” Cholesterol. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Colpo, Anthony. (2005). LDL Cholesterol: “Bad” Cholesterol, or Bad Science? Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, (10)3: 83-89. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Garrett, Mario D. Cholesterol and Our Aging Brain. (February 9, 2014.) Psychology Today, Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Mayo Clinic Staff. High Cholesterol: Symptoms and Causes. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Muldoon, M.F., Barger, S. D., Ryan, C. M., Flory, J.D., Lehoczky, J.P., Matthews, K. A., Manuck, S. B. (2000). Effects of lovastatin on cognitive function and psychological well-being. The American Journal of Medicine, 108(7): 538-546. Available at Retrieved June 6, 2016.

Newschaffer, C. J., Bush, T.L., and Hale, W. E.  (1992). Aging and Total Cholesterol Levels: Cohort, Period, and Survivorship Effects. American Journal of Epidemiology, 136(1): 23-24. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

National Institute of Health. Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know. Medline Plus, Summer 2012. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Schwartz, Jay. (August 16, 2013). Normal Cholesterol Levels by Age. Available at Retrieved 6/17/2016.

Toth, Peter P. (2005). The “Good Cholesterol”: High-Density Lipoprotein. Circulation, 2005. American Heart Association. Available at Retrieved May 5, 2016.