For the first time in nearly 50 years, the average cholesterol level for U.S. adults is in the ideal range, the government reported Wednesday.
Results from a national survey, which includes blood tests, found the total cholesterol level dropped to 199. Doctors like patients to have total cholesterol readings of 200 or lower.
The growing use of cholesterol-lowering pills in people 60 and older is believed to be a main reason for the improvement, experts said.
"These age groups are the ones most likely to be treated with medication," said Susan Schober of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lead author of the report.
The survey collects data in two-year intervals. The new results are based on a national sample of about 4,500 people age 20 and older from 2005-06. The new 199 level compares with 204 in 1999-2000.
When the survey began in 1960, the average cholesterol was at 222.
Researchers also found that the percentage of adults with high cholesterol - at least 240 - dropped to 16 percent, down from 20 percent in the early 1990s.
They also reported that 65 percent of men and 75 percent of women had been screened for high cholesterol in the previous five years.
High cholesterol is commonly linked to obesity: Eating an abundance of meats, dairy products and other foods rich in saturated fats contributes to both problems, as does lack of exercise.
But U.S. cholesterol levels and obesity rates have been going in opposite directions. Using data from the same survey that produced the new cholesterol results, the CDC reported last month that the adult obesity rate - which grew over the last 25 years - is now at a far-from-ideal 34 percent.
"A lot of us worry that people are getting a false sense of security. You don't want somebody sitting around - obese - eating potato chips, other junk food, not exercising, saying 'you know what? My cholesterol's low, I'm safe from a heart attack.' You have to address all the risk factors," said CBS News medical correspondent Jon LaPook.
LaPook and other experts say the difference appears to be cholesterol-lowering drugs, including widely used medicines as Lipitor, made by Pfizer Inc.; Zocor, by Merck & Co.; and Pravachol, from Bristol-Meyers Squibb.
The drugs dramatically reduce levels of LDL cholesterol, which can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks.
"Statins are very powerful drugs and they can very effectively lower the cholesterol level," said LaPook.
Katie Couric reports on the CBS Evening News that the makers of the statin Mevacor will go before the FDA on Thursday to ask for permission to sell it without a prescription over the counter.
"I've spoken to a bunch of cardiologists about that," said LaPook, "and they have concerns. This is a powerful drug and it has side effects."