Table of Contents
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to protect nerves, make cell tissues, and produce certain hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Your body also gets cholesterol directly from the food you eat (such as eggs, meats, and dairy products). Too much cholesterol can have negative impacts on your health.
What is the difference between "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol?
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called "bad" cholesterol. It delivers cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often called "good" cholesterol. It removes cholesterol from the bloodstream.
This explains why too much LDL cholesterol is bad for the body, and why a high level of HDL cholesterol is good. For example, if your total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL level, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. But, if your total cholesterol level is high only because of a high HDL level, you're probably not at higher risk.
Triglycerides are another type of fat in your blood. When you eat more calories than your body can use, it turns the extra calories into triglycerides.
Changing your lifestyle (diet and exercise) can improve your cholesterol levels, lower LDL and triglycerides, and raise HDL.
What should my cholesterol levels be?
Your ideal cholesterol level will depend on your risk for heart desease.
- Total cholesterol level - less than 200 is best, but depends on your HDL and LDL levels
- LDL cholesterol levels - less than 130 is best, but this depends on your risk for heart disease
- HDL cholesterol levels - 60 or higher reduces your risk for heart disease
- Triglycerides - less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) is best
Diagnosis & Tests
When should I start having my cholesterol level checked?
You can't tell if you have high cholesterol without having it checked.
Men 35 years of age and older and women 45 years of age and older should have their cholesterol checked. Men and women 20 years of age and older who have risk factors for heart disease should also have their cholesterol checked. Ask your doctor how often you should have your cholesterol checked.
What can I do to improve my cholesterol level?
If you have high cholesterol, it may be necessary for you to make some lifestyle changes. If you smoke, quit. Exercise regularly. If you're overweight, losing just five to 10 pounds can help improve your cholesterol levels and your risk for heart disease. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish. All of these foods promote heart health. Reduce red meat, processed meats, and fried foods.
What about medicine to lower cholesterol?
Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may suggest medicine along with lifestyle changes.
Learn More About Cholesterol Treatment
Why is a high cholesterol level unhealthy?
While some cholesterol is needed for good health, too much cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease, including heart attack or stroke.
If you have high cholesterol, your body may store the extra cholesterol in your arteries. Your arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Buildup of cholesterol in your arteries is known as plaque. Over time, plaque can become hard and make your arteries narrow. Large deposits of plaque can completely block an artery. Cholesterol plaques can also split open, leading to formation of a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood.
If an artery that supplies blood to the muscles in your heart becomes blocked, a heart attack can occur. If an artery that supplies blood to your brain becomes blocked, a stroke can occur.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- Am I at risk for heart disease?
- How often should I get my cholesterol tested?
- What are my cholesterol levels? What do they mean?
- What lifestyle changes do I need to make to help improve my cholesterol levels and heart health?
- Is there a chance that I'll need cholesterol-lowering medicine?
- What are the risks and benefits of taking this medicine?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.