What You Should Know about Cholesterol
Too much cholesterol in your blood, organs and arteries increases your health risks.
Your body automatically makes cholesterol -- a waxy, fatlike substance in the blood. Some people naturally produce more cholesterol than other people. Your liver and other cells in your body make about 75 percent of blood cholesterol.
About 25 percent of our cholesterol comes from the foods we eat. High-fat and high-cholesterol foods add more cholesterol to our blood than we need.
Cholesterol can build up in your arteries. The buildup is called plaque. Plaque can break loose or cause inflammation in blood vessels. A heart artery blocked by plaque can result in a heart attack. Hardened arteries with plaque can also lead to blood clots, high blood pressure, strokes and dementia. Most gallstones are also made of cholesterol.
Outpatient visits to medical providers for high cholesterol grew 300 percent between 1996 and 2006. (Source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.)
There are two basic types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol (high- density lipoproteins) is often called "good cholesterol." Scientists think HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is passed from the body. HDL seems to counteract LDL cholesterol -- the bad low-density lipoproteins. LDL cholesterol is often called "bad cholesterol" because it clogs arteries. Too much of LDL -- or not enough of HDL -- can put you at higher risk for heart disease or a stroke.
Memory problems and disability after a stroke may be more likely for people with high LDL or low HDL. Your total cholesterol count is the sum of the measures of the different types of cholesterol. A measure of 240 or more is dangerously high. A third blood substance called triglycerides carries fat around the body. A lower triglyceride level also reduces your risk for heart disease and diabetes. Exercise and a healthy diet can lower your LDL levels. HDL often improves with the length and intensity of exercise. Regular exercise -- like walking 30 minutes a day -- can have long-term benefits on cholesterol and triglycerides. Fruits, vegetables, and grains such as oatmeal and flax are good ways to reduce LDL. Foods high in saturated fat raise cholesterol. High-fat foods to avoid include sausage, hot dogs, ribs, cookies and pies, whole milk and certain cheeses. Many people have reduced their LDL cholesterol mainly through improving their diets. Some people have taken niacin (a B vitamin) or an oil supplement (omega-3 fish oil or flax oil) to improve their cholesterol count. A simple blood test is needed to measure cholesterol. All adults 20 or over should have their cholesterol checked every five years. People who have had high cholesterol should get their cholesterol measured more often.
Some people may need a statin drug prescription to reduce hard- to-control cholesterol. What You Should Do Keep track of your cholesterol count. Aim for a measure of less than 200 mg/dl for total cholesterol. Your LDL cholesterol should be under 100 mg/dl while your HDL cholesterol should be over 50 mg/dl. If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend lower numbers.Avoid foods high in saturated fat. Eat far more fruits, whole grains and vegetables.Exercise every day. Find easy ways to add exercise to your daily routine: Take a walk for 30 minutes, use the stairs, walk to a co- worker's desk instead of sending an e-mail, or do yard work. Weight control and stronger muscles are added benefits.Control your weight. If you are overweight, you have a greater chance of having abnormal levels of fat in your blood.If you have had high cholesterol, ask your primary care doctor if you should have your cholesterol checked at each visit. Also consider getting checked for thyroid disease, which can lead to weight gain and high cholesterol.Stroke and angina patients: Work to control your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight to avoid future problems.If you have a prescription to lower your cholesterol, stay on it. It may be a small investment compared to a more serious health problem later.Make sure you get the care you need most at your regular checkups. Older adults should receive routine cholesterol screening along with a blood pressure check and colon cancer screening if you are age 50 or over. Ask your doctor if you should be taking daily low-dose aspirin as well. Good vs. Bad Cholesterol LevelsAsk your doctor if you have risk factors that change your numbers. Under 200 -- Desirable 200 to 239 -- Warning 240 or higher -- Danger Source: "Learn your cholesterol number" publication, National Health, Lung and Blood Institute, adapted by Healthy Memphis Data Center