Americans' cholesterol levels are moving in the right direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently analyzed data from three national health surveys from 1988 to 2010 and found that total cholesterol levels among adults dropped an average of 10 points, from 206 to 196, while "bad" LDL fell and "good" HDL rose slightly. Researchers credit wider use of statins and, perhaps, fewer trans-fats in our diet and lower smoking rates.
But we still have work to do.
Here are three small steps to help get - or keep - your numbers on track:
Eat apples. They're a source of soluble fiber, which helps reduce absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. (Other foods that do this: oat bran, oatmeal, beans, pears, peas and barley.) And a small study of healthy, middle-aged adults has found that having one apple a day for four weeks lowered blood levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol (what hardens arteries). Those who took capsules of polyphenols (an antioxidant in apples) had a similar, less significant, effect. More diet tips to help control cholesterol: Focus on produce; choose whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy and olive or canola oils; and eat fish at least twice a week.
Pump your heart. Walk, jog, bike, dance, play basketball or ice skate: Brisk activity increases heart rate, and doing it regularly can help boost "good" HDL by about 5 percent within a few months of starting. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week (you can break your daily workout into three 10-minute sessions). Plus, new research in The Lancet suggests that if you work out regularly and take statins as part of a cholesterol-lowering plan, you dramatically cut risk of premature death.
Sleep longer. Research suggests a link between lack of sleep and weight gain (that's important because excess pounds contribute to high cholesterol). The latest: Researchers studied adults who slept four hours vs. nine; short sleep increased hunger-stimulating hormones in men and reduced satiety hormones in women. Both could lead to overeating.
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