Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a great way to keep your heart healthy and can lower your chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. When it comes to cholesterol – good or bad, high or low – deciphering which is which and what to do about it can be a challenge. To gain a better understanding, you need to understand what cholesterol is, how it affects the heart and body, and why it’s important to work with your provider to ensure your cholesterol is in check.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring waxy substance within our blood. It helps the body build new cells, insulate nerves, and produce hormones. Normally, the liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs. But cholesterol also enters the body from food, such as animal-based foods like milk, eggs, and meat. Too much cholesterol in the body is a risk factor for heart disease.
High cholesterol is a condition in which you have too many lipids (fats) in your blood. It’s also called hyperlipidemia or hypercholesterolemia. Your body needs just the right amount of lipids to function. When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries forming plaque or fatty deposits, causing a process called atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease. This plaque might not cause any problems for years, but over time, the plaque silently gets bigger and bigger within your arteries. As this occurs, the arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked which can lead to chest pain or a heart attack.
Your cholesterol level is the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Your total cholesterol level is made up of high density lipoprotein (HDL), low density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides.
- High density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, is known as “good” cholesterol, so a higher number is better. HDL helps remove some of the “bad” cholesterol from your blood. HDLs carry cholesterol to your liver, which keeps your cholesterol levels balanced. It makes enough cholesterol to support your body’s needs and gets rid of the rest.
- Low density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, is known as “bad” cholesterol, so a lower number is better. LDL is a leading contributor to plaque and fatty deposit build-up in the blood.
- Triglycerides are a type of fat so a lower number is better, because, similar to LDL, triglycerides are also linked to the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.
The only way to know your cholesterol level is to stay current with regular testing. Tests usually take place at a doctor’s office or other medical facility. Some communities offer free heart screenings at health fairs and other events. Before your test, you will be asked not to eat or drink for several hours. During your test, a nurse or technician draws blood from your arm, and your blood is then sent to a lab for testing.
Usually, results are available in about a week. Your results will fall into one of the following categories:
- 200 mg/dL or lower = normal
- 200 – 239 mg/dL = borderline high
- 240 mg/dL or higher = high
It’s important to talk to your medical provider about your results, especially if you’re at high risk for heart disease.
The main goal in treating high cholesterol is to lower your LDL levels and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Your healthcare provider determines your “goals” for lowering LDL based on the number of risk factors you have for heart disease. Based on your risk, they will determine the intensity of LDL reduction you need.
Lifestyle changes play an important role in controlling cholesterol. If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, your provider might recommend lifestyle changes before prescribing medicine. These changes might include:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
- Getting regular physical activity.
- Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Quitting smoking (smoking is also linked to atherosclerosis).
Be sure to follow the treatment plan your provider recommends, including taking any prescribed medicine. Even when you’re taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, lifestyle changes help to lower your risk.
David Ambrose, D.O., is a cardiologist with UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute and sees patients at the Health Innovation Center, 740 High St., Williamsport. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Ambrose, call 570-321-2800, and to learn more about UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute services, go to UPMC.com/HeartNCPA.