Do I Need To Worry About High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol is defined as total cholesterol levels of more than 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/ dL), which is more common than very low levels. A normal healthy adult’s cholesterol level is below 200mg/dL, but above 200mg/dL is considered high cholesterol.
Current guidelines recommend that healthy adults have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years. People with high total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol are at significantly increased risk for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 25.6 million adults develop heart disease each year, and 650,000 people die from the disease each year.
Cholesterol is demonized for a reason, but our bodies cannot live without this soft, waxy substance. Present in all cells, cholesterol helps with hormone production, digestion and converting sunlight into vitamin D.
About 80% of cholesterol in the blood is produced by the liver and intestines, with the rest coming from the diet3.
A number of tests are used to assess blood cholesterol levels. The simplest test measures total cholesterol, which is the sum of LDL (“bad” cholesterol), HDL (“good” cholesterol) and triglycerides (the main form of body fat).
The lipid profile test is performed after 12 hours of fasting and provides detailed data on cholesterol levels by fat type (LDL, HDL, triglycerides).
The current guidelines for healthy cholesterol levels recommend the following values.
- LDL: less than 100 mg/dL is considered healthy.
- HDL: 60 mg/dL or higher is considered healthy.
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL is considered healthy.
HDL cholesterol – the “good cholesterol” – plays the role of a cleaning team in the bloodstream, transporting the “bad cholesterol” (LDL) to the liver for safe elimination. In other words, the higher the level of HDL, the better it is for your heart.
If you have had a lipid test, you can use our Lipid Test Analyzer to get a better idea of your results. You can start by entering your test results in the tool below. You will be able to see what your values mean for your health, so you can follow up with your doctor appropriately.
Not sure what your triglyceride, cholesterol or other lipid test results mean? Choose a test and enter a value to get a better idea of whether it’s in the low, optimal or high range. This information can then be used to discuss next steps with your doctor.
Maintaining good cholesterol levels is important for maintaining heart health. According to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high total cholesterol levels are especially dangerous for smokers.
In addition, people with diabetes or obesity, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease should strive to maintain healthy cholesterol levels5.
About 1 in 200 to 1 in 500 people have familial hypercholesterolemia. This is an inherited condition that causes cholesterol levels to rise to twice the normal level6.
In addition to lifestyle and general health status, age is another risk factor for developing hypercholesterolemia. Older adults, especially men over 45 and women over 55, are more likely to have high cholesterol levels because their bodies are less able to process and excrete cholesterol.
Younger people are not immune to the dangers of high cholesterol. Researchers have found that cholesterol plaque begins to form well before adulthood and can lead to narrowing of the arteries and possible heart attack or stroke.
In most cases, dietary changes and increased physical activity are the first response to lowering high cholesterol levels; NCEP recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise per day.
Other recommended strategies include avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity often leads to higher total cholesterol levels because too much body fat raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Foods to avoid
Foods to avoid for people with high cholesterol include white bread, white potatoes, white rice, whole grain dairy products, highly processed sugar and flour. Fried foods and red meats, as well as foods high in saturated fat should also be avoided.
Foods that have been shown to lower cholesterol include fatty fish, nuts, oats, psyllium (and other soluble fibers), and foods fortified with plant sterols and sterols.
However, if lifestyle changes alone do not help, your doctor may prescribe a special class of medications called statins. Statins are the most widely prescribed of cholesterol-lowering drugs, and they work by inhibiting the production of cholesterol in the liver.
Your doctor may prescribe one of a number of statins. Lipitor (atorvastatin), Zocor (simvastatin), Mevacor (lovastatin), Lescol (fluvastatin), Crestor (rosuvastatin), and Pravachol (pravastatin).
How to lower your cholesterol
First, take a cholesterol report card and check your numbers. By knowing where you stand, you can create a baseline risk profile and start making positive changes from there. In order to know where you’re headed, you need to know where you are.
For most of us, cholesterol comes from a combination of the following factors: the food we eat, the amount our bodies produce (aka genetics), the amount we burn through exercise, and unhealthy habits like smoking.
For some people, most of their cholesterol may come from food. Diets high in saturated fats (found in animal products and whole milk products) and trans fats (found in many processed foods, alcohol, and carbohydrate-rich diets) can lead to high LDL levels and low HDL levels. Lack of exercise and low lean muscle mass may also lead to lower HDL levels. Smoking also lowers HDL, leading to inflammation of the arterial walls.
However, for others, cholesterol is strongly predicted by genetics and the amount produced in the body. Unfortunately, it’s out of our control.
Start by putting in place the things you can control: your habits and lifestyle choices.
- Adopt a low-salt diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit processed foods. Eat lean protein and protein substitutes.
- Limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet and use healthy fats in moderation.
- Reduce excess weight and try to maintain a healthy weight.
- Establish healthy eating habits, control portion sizes, and encourage family involvement and support.
- Quit smoking.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
- If possible, drink alcohol in moderation.
- Manage your stress levels, as stress can cause inflammation in the body.
Finally, work with your doctor to see if medications are working for your overall health goals.
Know your numbers. Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Be proactive.