In the United States, around two in five adults have high cholesterol. Elevated cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, both prominent causes of death, per the CDC.

Understanding cholesterol, its sources, and how to manage it effectively is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being.

What is cholesterol?

The American Heart Association, or AHA, describes cholesterol as the “waxy, fatlike substance in your blood.”

Your body contains various types of cholesterol, most of which play essential roles in maintaining health. However, excessive levels of the “bad” cholesterol can contribute to heart disease or stroke, as noted by the AHA.

Good cholesterol — High-density lipoprotein, or HDL

HDL can decrease the risk of heart disease or stroke, per the AHA.

Bad cholesterol — low-density lipoprotein, or LDL

This cholesterol can build up in your arteries, trapping blood and creating clots. Therefore, when elevated, you are at risk for heart disease and stroke. Lower levels of LDL is better, per the AHA.

Triglycerides

Triglycerides, a form of fat found in the body, can lead to excessive cholesterol accumulation when levels are high, per the AHA.

Where does cholesterol come from and what does it do?

Per the AHA, cholesterol comes from your liver and diet.

Cholesterol in the blood originates from the liver and plays vital roles in cell formation, vitamin synthesis and hormone production. The body synthesizes all necessary cholesterol internally through this process.

Dietary cholesterol is derived from the foods you consume, mainly sourced from animal products such as meat, eggs, cheese and milk. Excessive dietary cholesterol intake can pose health risks if it becomes elevated.

What are signs of bad or high cholesterol?

There are no symptoms for high cholesterol. Therefore, it is important to regularly check your levels, per Mayo Clinic.

According to WebMD, if your condition has progressed, there is a chance that symptoms may appear from the result of high cholesterol, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or other circulatory problems. These symptoms may also include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Yellow growths or lesions on your skin.
  • Diagnosis of diabetes or obesity.
  • Impotence.

How do I check my cholesterol?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to check your cholesterol is through a blood test called a lipid profile, done by your doctor.

Discuss your health background and the frequency of cholesterol screenings necessary for you with your doctor. Cholesterol assessments should start at a young age, including children and adolescents, per the CDC. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • For most healthy adults, cholesterol screenings are recommended every four to six years.
  • Individuals with conditions like heart disease, diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol may require more frequent screenings.
  • Children and adolescents should undergo cholesterol screenings once between ages 9 and 11, and again between ages 17 and 21.
  • Children with obesity or diabetes might need more frequent cholesterol screenings.

What are normal cholesterol levels?

The New York Times summarizes what normal cholesterol levels are.

In general, your LDL, which is the “bad cholesterol” that sits on artery walls, should be below 100 milligrams per deciliter. However, normal levels vary depending on age, gender, genetics and diseases. For example, individuals with diabetes should keep their LDL below 70 milligrams per deciliter.

LDL levelsHDL levelsTriglyceridesTotal cholesterol
HealthyBelow 10060 and aboveBelow 150Below 200
At-risk100-15940-59150-199200-239
Dangerous160 and aboveBelow 40200 and above240 and above

If any cholesterol level falls to at-risk or dangerous, or if you are unsure which levels are right for you, make sure to talk to your doctor.

How do I lower my cholesterol?

You may be prescribed medication to improve your cholesterol. However, Mayo Clinic suggests five changes to help prevent or lower high cholesterol levels.

  • Eat heart-heathy food: Add fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids to your diet.
  • Exercise regularly: Try to complete 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Lose weight: Only do so if medically diagnosed as overweight.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.

By adopting healthy habits, undergoing regular cholesterol screenings and working closely with health care providers, individuals can effectively manage cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

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