Heart disease is a stealthy disease—you can feel great, hold down a high-level job, and play tennis every week—all while having a severely blocked artery. But a blocked artery can cause a potentially fatal heart attack at any moment. That’s why it’s so important to keep your cholesterol levels within desirable ranges.
What is Cholesterol?
Though cholesterol often gets a bad rap, it is a natural and essential substance. Your body uses cholesterol, which is a waxy compound, to build healthy cells. However, if you have too much cholesterol, you can be at risk of heart disease.
You get cholesterol from two sources. The first source is your liver, which makes all the cholesterol you need. The second source is animal foods: meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. Cholesterol circulates in your blood by attaching to proteins (the term lipoprotein refers to the combination of proteins and cholesterol).
As you’ve probably heard, you have good and bad cholesterol. Low density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad cholesterol, builds fatty deposits on your artery walls and makes them hard and narrow. This can lead to heart disease, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease (narrowed arteries that reduce blood flow to your limbs). High density lipoprotein (HDL) is the good cholesterol. It transports bad cholesterol to the liver, which breaks it down and removes it from your body. In short, HDL cholesterol helps keep your arteries open and supple.
Know Your Cholesterol Levels
Unfortunately, you can have high cholesterol and not know it, because it usually does not have any symptoms. That’s why you need to get your cholesterol levels checked, which is done with a simple blood test.
You should start getting your cholesterol tested at age 20. While young adults should have the test every five years, men ages 45-65 and women ages 55-65 should have it every one to two years. However, if you’re at risk for heart disease (you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes or you smoke), your doctor may check your cholesterol more frequently.
For most people, the overall cholesterol level should be between 125 - 200, the LDL level should be less than 100, and the HDL level should be 40 or higher for men and 50 or higher for women.
Treating High Cholesterol
If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, do not despair. You can lower it. As a first step, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes: weight loss, exercise, and diet. You’ll want to get 30-40 minutes of exercise four times a week and limit your intake of saturated and trans fat. That means reducing the amount of red meat, whole milk, and fried foods you eat and adding more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, and healthy oils to your diet. Research shows you can increase your good cholesterol by up to 10 percent just by exercising and changing your diet.
However, if you have risk factors such as heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, your doctor will likely put you on combination therapy: medication in addition to therapeutic lifestyle changes.
Keeping your cholesterol at acceptable levels requires diligence and a healthy lifestyle, but it is worth the effort. You’ll keep your heart healthy.
How much did you learn? Test your cholesterol knowledge.