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Canadian Health Measures Survey: Cholesterol and vitamin D levels

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2007 to 2009 

New data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) show that 41% of Canadian adults had a high total cholesterol level. In addition, 4% of Canadians aged 6 to 79, or just over 1.1 million people, were considered vitamin D-deficient.

These findings are included in the second data release from the CHMS, which collected key information about the health of Canadians by means of direct physical measurements. The CHMS tested blood samples of participants for a number of lipids, which are a class of fats that include cholesterol and triglycerides, and for vitamin D and other nutrition markers.

Lipids (cholesterol levels)

High levels of total cholesterol increase with age. About 27% of adults aged 20 to 39 had high levels of total cholesterol from 2007 to 2009. This percentage increased to 47% among those aged 40 to 59 and 54% of those aged 60 to 79.

Lipids are a class of fats, or fat-like substances, which includes cholesterol and triglycerides. There are two types of cholesterol. "Good cholesterol" (high density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol) helps to prevent the narrowing of arteries. "Bad cholesterol" (low density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol) can lead to cardiovascular disease.

About 36% of adult Canadians had unhealthy levels of LDL cholesterol, while 30% had unhealthy levels of HDL cholesterol. Unhealthy levels of LDL cholesterol generally increase with age, but peaked at 43% among adults aged 40 to 59.

Overall, about 25% of Canadian adults had unhealthy levels of triglycerides. This percentage also increased with age, from 17% among adults aged 20 to 39 to 34% among the age group 60 to 79.

About 36% of Canadians aged 20 to 79 who did not have a healthy level of good cholesterol were obese, compared with 16% of those with a healthy level of good cholesterol. Unhealthy levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, and bad cholesterol were generally associated with higher measured hypertension.

Vitamin D: Most Canadians have adequate concentrations

About 5% of men and 3% of women aged 6 to 79 were considered vitamin D-deficient. The highest prevalence of deficiency occurred among men aged 20 to 39, about 7% of whom were considered vitamin D-deficient.

Vitamin D is a nutrient that helps the body use calcium and phosphorus to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. When it is deficient, the body absorbs very little calcium. Deficiency in children can cause nutritional rickets, a condition that results in soft bones and skeletal deformities. In adults, low levels of vitamin D can cause osteoporosis.

The survey found that the vast majority (90%) of Canadians aged 6 to 79 had concentrations of vitamin D in their blood that were considered adequate for bone health.

Conversely, 10% or roughly 3 million people had concentrations considered inadequate; of these, 1.1 million were considered vitamin D-deficient. Men were more likely than women to have inadequate concentrations.

For both sexes, levels of vitamin D followed a U-shape by age group: highest among children and seniors, and lowest at ages 20 to 39. Levels tended to be higher among women than men.

Note to readers

This second release of data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) provides information on more than 60 laboratory measures related to nutrition (such as vitamin D, folate, vitamin B12), chronic diseases (such as high cholesterol and diabetes) and infectious diseases (hepatitis).

These indicators were collected from March 2007 to February 2009 from a representative sample of about 5,600 Canadians aged 6 to 79 years at 15 sites across the country.

Healthy and unhealthy levels of lipids used in this data release are based on recommendations from the CHMS Physician Advisory Committee and the US National Cholesterol Education Program. Desirable levels of total cholesterol are defined as below 5.2 millimoles per litre (mmol/L) for adults aged 20 to 79; desirable triglyceride levels were defined as below 1.7 mmol/L, and levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol as below 3.4 mmol/L. Desirable levels of "good" (HDL) cholesterol were defined as above 1.0 mmol/L for men and 1.3 mmol/L for women.

Vitamin D deficiency was defined as a concentration below 27.5 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L). Vitamin D inadequacy for bone health was defined as a concentration below 37.5 nmol/L. These standards for Vitamin D levels were set in 1997 by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. and are currently under joint review by Canada and the United States.

Millimoles per litre and nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) are measures of concentration that reflect the number of molecules per litre of blood.

A factor associated with lower concentrations was, for some people, darker skin pigmentation. This is because it is more difficult for people with darker skin to get adequate vitamin D through sun exposure. White ethnic origin tended to be associated with higher levels of concentration of vitamin D.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5071.

The article, "Vitamin D status of Canadians as measured in the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey," which is part of today's Health Reports (82-003-X, free) online release, is now available. From the Key resource module of our website, choose Publications.

Fact sheets on vitamin D and lipids (82-625-X, free) are also available.

The publication Canadian Health Measures Survey: Cycle 1 Data Tables, 2007 to 2009 (82-623-X, free), is now available from the Key resource module of our website under Publications.

For more information about vitamin D, contact Kellie Langlois (613-951-3806;, Health Analysis Division.

For more information on lipids and on the Canadian Health Measures Survey, 2007 to 2009, contact Jeanine Bustros (613-951-9476;, Physical Health Measures Division.