According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71 million Americans (nearly 34%) have high cholesterol, called hypercholesterolemia. Even the average adult American has a cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL. This is just at the borderline for being considered high risk. High cholesterol is a strong risk factor for developing heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Thus, getting your cholesterol levels tested and treating high cholesterol when needed is an important part of maintaining your health.
Luckily, there are many things that can be done to lower cholesterol levels and, more often than not, the best place to start is with diet and healthy lifestyle modifications.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by cells in your body and used to form cell membranes, help digestion, convert Vitamin D in the skin and develop hormones. Although your body needs some cholesterol for it to function properly, too much of it in your diet can cause real health problems. This is because it accumulates in your arteries and creates deposits, called plaque, which narrow and block the passage of blood. A buildup of cholesterol plaque deposits, known as atherosclerosis, can decrease the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart and brain, and cause a heart attack or stroke.
What is the difference between “good” and “bad” cholesterol?
There are two main types of cholesterol-carriers, and these affect the body in very different ways. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol-carriers) make up most of the body’s cholesterol, and are referred to as “bad cholesterol” because high levels that build up and clog artery walls can lead to heart disease and stroke.
The lower your LDL cholesterol, the lower your risk.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol-carriers) are referred to as “good cholesterol” because they actually protect against heart disease and stroke by absorbing the bad, LDL cholesterol and carrying it to the liver where the body can flush it out.
Triglycerides are the form in which most fats exist in foods. In the body, excess calories, alcohol, or sugars are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells.While not technically cholesterol, triglyceride measurement is part of any cholesterol test because high levels can also increase risk for heart disease.
What are acceptable levels for different cholesterols?
An LDL level below 130 mg/dL is ideal for most people. However, people with risk factors for heart disease such as obesity or diabetes may be advised to aim for a target LDL below 100 mg/dL. If you have a very high risk for developing heart disease, your LDL level should be even lower, below 70 mg/dL. LDL levels at or above 190 mg/dL are very high, and your doctor may recommend a statin medication to lower your levels. Generally speaking, the lower your LDL cholesterol level is, the better for your health.
Because HDL cholesterol helps flush out the bad LDL cholesterol from the body, higher “good” HDL cholesterol numbers mean lower risk for patients. For men , HDL should be above 40 mg/dL and women should be above 50 mg/dL.
A triglyceride level at or below 100 mg/dL is optimal. If you have elevated triglyceride levels, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss, and physical activity rather than treatment with medication.
Total cholesterol, which is a combined measure of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and other lipid components, is used to determine and manage your overall risk for heart disease. A total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL is ideal, and anything over 240 mg/dL is considered high.
What are the risk factors for developing high cholesterol?
There are a number of risk factors that increase the chances of developing high cholesterol. These include:
- Age and gender: Cholesterol tends to rise as people get older, so risk for high cholesterol increases with age. Women’s LDL levels rise more quickly than men’s, and men tend to have lower HDL levels than women.
- Heredity: High cholesterol can be a genetic condition that runs in families, called familial hypercholesterolemia, and people with this inherited condition can have very high LDL cholesterol levels at a relatively young age.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes are more likely to develop high cholesterol due to the disease’s effect on the use of the insulin hormone. Insulin tells the body to remove sugar from the blood, but diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce and/or process insulin properly and thus causes sugar to build up in the blood, this adversely affects triglyceride and HDL-Cholesterol levels
- Diet: Foods that contain high amounts of saturated fats, trans fatty acids (trans fats), cholesterol, or triglycerides raise your cholesterol levels.
- Weight: As a rule, being overweight or obese can raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol in the body, consequently increasing total cholesterol levels and health risks.
- Physical Inactivity: Exercise and activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, so not getting enough exercise can lead to higher cholesterol levels. Exercise positively affects HDL-cholesterol levels.
How often should cholesterol levels be tested?
There are no real symptoms or signs of high cholesterol, so persons over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol levels tested with a lipid profile blood test at least once every 5 years, beginning at the age of 20. For men age 35 and older, and women age 45 and older (after menopause), doctors recommend more frequent cholesterol testing.
What can I do to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels?
Although high cholesterol can be inherited, it is more often the result of poor eating and lifestyle choices—making it both preventable and treatable. Medication may be needed for extremely high cholesterol levels, but healthy diet and regular exercise can work wonders in reducing high cholesterol. Following are some tips we give our patients for preventing high cholesterol or decreasing and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels:
- Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy diet with less saturated fat and cholesterol from meat and dairy products, and choose foods with more soluble fiber like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as oatmeal and beans. Replace saturated fat, sugars and refined starchy foods in the diet with unsaturated plant based fats and oils.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes, no less than 5 times a week.
- Quit smoking and drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.
We’re here to help.
At LifeStyle Medical Center, our experienced professional team of doctors, nurse practitioners and dietitians are committed to providing nutritional guidance and high cholesterol treatment. This helps you lower your cholesterol the healthy way by addressing the risk factors you can control.
Our goal is to help you reduce or eliminate your dependence on cholesterol-lowering medication and enable you to make sustainable, healthy lifestyle choices. A modest weight loss of 5% to 10% of your body weight can lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and our medical team and registered dietitian will work with you to develop an individualized, evidence-based nutrition approach to help you lose weight, develop healthier eating habits and improve your cholesterol levels.
Contact LifeStyle Medical Center today to have your cholesterol tested and begin treatment if needed.