What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance your liver produces to protect nerves and to make cell tissue and certain hormones. Your body also gets cholesterol from the food you consume. This includes eggs, meats, and dairy. Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) can be bad for your health. There is “good” (HDL) cholesterol and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol
What is the difference between “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol?
Good cholesterol is known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL). It removes cholesterol from the bloodstream. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol.
If your total cholesterol level is high due to a high LDL level, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. However, if your total cholesterol level is high only because of a high HDL level, you’re probably not at higher risk.
Triglycerides are another kind of fat in your blood. When you consume more calories than your body can use, it turns the extra calories into triglycerides.
Altering your lifestyle (diet and exercise) can improve your cholesterol levels, decrease LDL and triglycerides, and raise HDL.
Your ideal cholesterol level will depend on your risk for heart disease.
- Total cholesterol level– less than 200 is best, but it depends on your HDL and LDL levels.
- LDL cholesterol levels– less than 130 is best, but this depends on your risk for heart disease.
- HDL cholesterol levels– 60 or higher reduces your risk for heart disease.
- Triglycerides– less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) is best.
Symptoms of high cholesterol
Commonly, there are no specific symptoms of high cholesterol. You can have high cholesterol and not know it.
If you have high cholesterol, your body may store the extra cholesterol in your arteries. These are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. A buildup of cholesterol in your arteries is called plaque. Over time, plaque can become hard and make your arteries narrow. Large deposits of plaque can totally block an artery. Cholesterol plaques can also break apart, leading to formation of a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood.
A blocked artery to the heart can lead to a heart attack. A blocked artery to your brain can lead to a stroke.
A lot of people don’t discover that they have high cholesterol until they experience one of these deadly events. Some individuals find out through routine check-ups that include blood tests.
What causes high cholesterol?
Your liver makes cholesterol, but you also get cholesterol from food. Consuming too many foods that are high in fat can increase your cholesterol level.
Being overweight and sedentary also causes high cholesterol. If you are overweight, you most likely have a higher level of triglycerides. If you never exercise and are not active in general, it can lower your HDL (good cholesterol).
Your family history also affects your cholesterol level. Research has shown that high cholesterol has a tendency to run in families. If you have an immediate family member who has it, you can have it, too.
Smoking also leads to high cholesterol. It lowers your HDL (good cholesterol).
How is high cholesterol diagnosed?
You can’t know if you have high cholesterol without having it checked. A basic blood test will reveal your cholesterol level.
Men 35 years of age and older and women 45 years of age and older should have their cholesterol checked. Men and women 20 years old and older that have risk factors for heart disease should have their cholesterol checked. Teens may need to be checked if they are taking certain medicines or have a strong family history of high cholesterol. Ask your physician how often you should have your cholesterol checked.
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- Cigarette smoking
- High blood pressure
- Older age
- Having an immediate family member (parent or sibling) that has had heart disease
- Being overweight or obese
- Lack of exercise
High cholesterol treatment
If you have high cholesterol, you might have to make some lifestyle changes. If you smoke, quit. Exercise on a regular basis. If you’re overweight, losing just five to 10 pounds can improve your cholesterol levels and your risk for heart disease. Be sure to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
Depending on your risk factors, your physician might prescribe medicine and lifestyle changes.