4 ways to keep your cholesterol in check

About 14% of Americans have cholesterol levels that are greater than 240 mg/dL — higher than is healthy for a person's heart. If you're one of those people, lowering your cholesterol level can lower your chances of having a heart attack. For every 10% drop in your cholesterol level, your heart attack risk falls by 20% to 30%.

You can't change your age or family medical history, both of which can affect your cholesterol levels. However, you can lose weight if you need to and boost physical activity (which is good for everyone). These two steps can help lower your cholesterol. Probably the most important thing you can do is watch what you eat. These four simple steps are a great place to start.

  1. Focus on fats. Avoid foods high in saturated fats, which increase unhealthy LDL levels. Steer clear of trans fats, which raise LDL and lower protective HDL. Instead, substitute healthier unsaturated fats, which are found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  2. Choose whole grains. Whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereal help prevent a blood sugar rollercoaster and make you feel full longer. Many of these foods contain fiber that lowers LDL levels.
  3. Make other healthy choices. Eat more fruits and vegetables, especially if you substitute these for processed foods like potato chips. And make healthy dairy substitutions: fat-free milk instead of whole milk, or low-fat yogurt instead of sugar-laden versions.
  4. Take a medication if you need to. If lifestyle changes aren't enough to get your cholesterol down to a healthy level, talk with your doctor about taking a cholesterol-lowering drug. The statin drugs are very effective, but if you can't take this type of drug, there are other options.

For more on how to reduce your health risks from heart health to dementia, buy A Guide to Men's Health Fifty and Forward by Harvard Medical School.