When it comes to whether or not you’re going to develop high cholesterol in your lifetime, the odds are against you. More than 102 million American adults have cholesterol levels above what’s considered healthy and 35 million Americans are at risk of heart disease because of their cholesterol levels. High cholesterol tends to have silent symptoms, which is why many people are unaware that their cholesterol is at a dangerous level and putting their health in jeopardy. The only way to know for sure if you have high cholesterol is to get it tested by a doctor. But even then the numbers can be confusing. Here’s a helpful guide so that you understand what’s really going on in your body.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found naturally in your body and in foods that you consume, like meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Cholesterol itself isn’t bad, but if your regular diet is high in saturated and trans fats, your liver can produce too much cholesterol, which is dangerous to your health.
HDL, LDL and Triglycerides
When you get your cholesterol tested, your results will contain three separate numbers:
LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein, is the bad kind of cholesterol and makes up the majority of the cholesterol in your body. LDL builds up fat in your blood stream and narrows your arteries. It also tightens the blood vessels and decreases blood flow and oxygen to your organs. Having high levels of LDL cholesterol significantly increases your risk for heart disease, stroke and heart attack. An LDL level of less than 100 mg/dL is the goal. And if your LDL levels are more than 190 mg/dL, your risk of heart disease and other health problems are severe.
HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, is considered a good kind of cholesterol. It operates very differently from LDL cholesterol. HDL binds itself to fat in the blood stream and helps eliminate it (imagine it scrubbing your arteries clean). If your HDL cholesterol results come back high, don’t worry! Higher HDL numbers reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. An HDL cholesterol level higher than 60 mg/dL is considered desirable and an HDL less than 40 mg/dL increases your risk for heart disease.
Triglycerides are the third thing you’ll see on a cholesterol test. They are the most common type of fat that your body uses for energy. If you have high levels of triglycerides and low HDL or high LDL, you have an increased risk for atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis happens when fats, cholesterol and other substances build-up on the artery walls. So what’s desirable? Less than 150 mg/dL of triglycerides.
When should you get your cholesterol checked?
A simple blood test done by your primary care physician can determine whether your cholesterol levels are in the healthy range. You often have to go on a fast (no food or drink) for 12 hours leading up to the test.
Starting at the age of 20, the American Heart Association recommends getting your cholesterol checked every four to six years. Once you turn 45, you may want to get your cholesterol checked every one to two years to help detect if there are any warning signs of trouble. Your doctor may recommend getting tested more often if you have a family history of heart disease, high cholesterol or stroke. Other factors that could put you at risk include smoking, obesity and diabetes.
What habits can you have to maintain a healthy cholesterol?
Exercising for 150 minutes/week (that’s just half an hour, five days a week), eating a healthy diet and not smoking will greatly decrease your risk. Incorporating healthy fats and Omega-3 fatty acids from foods like salmon and almonds can also help lower LDL cholesterol. If your levels are already in the danger zone, lifestyle changes like exercising and improving your diet can bring your levels back where you want them to be. As always, talk to your doctor if you think you are at risk for high cholesterol.
For more ways to stay on top of your health, check out these posts from this blog as well as A Healthier Michigan:
- When Do You Really Need a Second Opinion?
- Steps Every Woman Can Take to Lower Risk of Cervical Cancer
- Top Five Ways Every Man Can Be Healthier
About the author: Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. She regularly speaks about common health issues that impact women and the importance of regular preventative care.
Photo credit: Jone