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Cholesterol 101: What it is and why it matters
September 9, 2018
Cholesterol. You probably know that it’s an important factor when it comes to your overall health and wellness, but what is it, exactly? This month marks National Cholesterol Education Month, making it a perfect time to refresh our knowledge on the ins and outs of cholesterol and understand how it affects your health.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that your body uses to make hormones and digest fatty foods. It comes from two sources:
- Your liver – your body naturally makes all the cholesterol it needs to function properly.
- Animal foods – this is known as dietary cholesterol and is found in egg yolks, fatty meats and cheese.
While your body needs cholesterol to function properly, too much can cause a build-up of deposits in your arteries that can lead to heart disease and stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 102 million American adults age 20 and older have total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dL, which puts them above healthy levels. More than 35 million in this group are at high risk for heart disease, with levels of 240 mg/dL or higher.
High cholesterol can be especially challenging because it is typically present without any symptoms and can go undiagnosed for years. Fortunately, your primary care provider can do a simple blood test to check your cholesterol levels. For young adults having their first screening, your provider will get a baseline cholesterol profile for you. After a first baseline screening, your screening frequency depends on your individual level of risk for heart disease:
- For those at higher risk for heart issues (due to hypertension, diabetes, tobacco use or a family history of premature heart disease), a follow-up cholesterol screening is suggested between the ages of 25 and 30 for men, and 30 and 35 for women (or more frequently depending on your degree of risk)
- For those at lower risk for heart issues, a follow-up screening is suggested at age 35 for men, and age 45 for women
From that point, it is recommended that you have your cholesterol tested every five years. If you are at higher risk for heart disease, your provider may increase your screening frequency.
Good Cholesterol vs. Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream on “lipoproteins.” When you get your cholesterol checked, your doctor will be looking at two different lipoprotein numbers:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein) – this is what is often known as “bad” cholesterol and is the type that accounts for most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries and put you at greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein) – this is what is commonly called “good” cholesterol. These proteins take cholesterol out of your arteries and back to your liver, where it is then flushed out of your body. High levels of “good” HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Maintaining Healthy Levels and Treating High Cholesterol
While high cholesterol is all too common, the good news is that it is quite treatable through simple lifestyle changes or prescribed cholesterol-reducing medication. Healthy lifestyle habits that can help you achieve and maintain healthy cholesterol levels include eating a healthy diet, incorporating regular physical activity into your daily routine, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco and limiting your intake of alcoholic beverages.