AIMS AND OBJECTIVES: Community awareness of the importance of hypercholesterolemia and the need for appropriate therapy is an important part of global efforts to reduce the population burden of cardiovascular disease. The aim of this study was to assess the knowledge and attitudes about cholesterol and to determine adherence to taking cholesterol-lowering medication among patients at high risk for cardiovascular events. BACKGROUND: In spite of the availability of lifestyle and medical treatments for lipid management, an estimated 50% of adult Australians (6.4 million) remain at risk for a cardiovascular-related event because they have total blood cholesterol levels which exceed recommended limits. It is within this context that a significant gap remains in meeting cholesterol goals, despite easy to meet targets with readily available therapeutic options. DESIGN: A two-page national self-report postal survey was conducted from August-October 2006. METHODS: A total of 508 Australian adults previously treated for hypercholesterolemia were surveyed to determine their understanding about cholesterol and their adherence to treatment. The mean age of participants was 67 (SD 10) years (72% male). Many participants (72%) were at risk of a cardiovascular event based on a prior history and 18% had type II diabetes. RESULTS: Participants had been prescribed lipid-lowering therapy (94% statin therapy) for an average of 10 years and visited their general practitioner on average three times per year. For those who knew their most recent cholesterol reading (67%), the total cholesterol was on average 4.5 (SD 1.1) mmol/l. This level was above the recommended limits for 40% of participants. Overall, 85% of participants reported knowing that there was high- and low-density lipoprotein forms of cholesterol, but only 56% and 38%, respectively, said that they understood or showed signs of clearly understanding the different types of cholesterol when their knowledge was assessed further. On the whole, therefore, participants had a limited understanding about cholesterol and its potential impact on cardiovascular events. Moreover, 25% of participants admitted to being non-compliant in taking their medication and only 51% correctly identified modifiable risk factors as most important for heart disease. Encouragingly, despite 85% of participants finding lifestyle changes challenging, most still identified their potential benefits. CONCLUSIONS: This study highlights that there are many unresolved issues in relation to educating high-risk patients who regularly visit their general practitioner to learn about and optimise their cholesterol levels via appropriate treatment and monitoring. RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE: There is a need for urgent public education and management by individuals and the health community. Strategies to address 'cholesterol complacency', in the sense of a willingness to accept sub-optimal standards of cholesterol control at both the patient and healthcare system levels (general practitioners in particular), are urgently needed to truncate an anticipated rising tide of cardiovascular disease in Australia.