What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that is a natural part of our bodies. It helps build cell membranes and other important tissues.

Our bodies make cholesterol. We also get it from eating anima products such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, butter, cheese and whole milk.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the United States. Each year more than a million Americans have heart attacks and about half a million people die from heart disease. The good news is that you can control a major risk factor in cardiovascular disease-your cholesterol level.

Is cholesterol bad?

No. We need a certain amount of cholesterol for a healthy body. But too much of it can lead to serious problems.

Cholesterol and other fats can’t dissolve in the blood. They have to be taken to and from the cells by carriers called lipoproteins.

What causes atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is also known as “hardening of the arteries.” We don’t know exactly what causes it, but experts think it starts when the innermost layer of the artery wall is damaged. This may result from:

  • High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoke

What are the risk factors?

A high level of cholesterol in the blood is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease and suffering a heart attack. However, it’s one of the risk factors you can do something about.

We can divide the risk factors into those we have no control over and those we can do something about.

The risk factors we can’t control are:

  • Family history – If your father or brother had heart disease before age 55, or your mother or sister before age 65, you’re more likely to get it yourself.
  • Age and gender – As we get older, the risk increases. Men over age 45 and women over age 55 are at greater risk.

The risk factors we CAN control are:

  • High cholesterol – As cholesterol levels rise, the risk of heart disease does too. To reduce your risk, keep your levels within the ranges outlined below.
  • Diabetes – According to the American Heart Association, adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or suffer a stroke than adults without diabetes. However, good control of diabetes can lower the risk.
  • Cigarette smoking – Smoking doubles the risk of heart disease. Secondhand smoke, over a long period of time, may also increase the risk.
  • High blood pressure – High blood pressure makes the heart work harder, causing it to weaken and increasing the likelihood of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure.
  • Lack of activity – Moderate to vigorous physical activity on a regular basis can help prevent cardiovascular disease. Even moderate activity done regularly over the long term can help.
  • Excess weight – Being obese or overweight puts an extra load on our hearts. It also affects blood pressure and cholesterol levels and can make us more susceptible to diabetes. Even small amounts of weight loss can be important in decreasing the risk of heart disease.

What is “good” cholesterol? How much should I have?

HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It’s called “good” cholesterol because it seems to protect against heart at tacks. HDL may carry some of the cholesterol away from the arteries. Having an HDL level of 60mg/dL or greater reduces your risk of heart disease. However, if your HDL level is less than 40 mg/dL, your risk of heard disease increases.

What is “bad” cholesterol? How much should I have?

LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is considered “bad” because high levels are linked with increased risk of heard disease.

When LDL cholesterol builds up the artery walls, it can restrict blood flow or even block it altogether. The result can be a heart attack or stroke.

If you have existing heart disease or diabetes, your LDL level should be less than 100 mg/dL. If you have two or more risk factors listed above, your LDL should be less than 130 mg/dL. If you have none or just one of the risk factors, your LDL should be less than 160 mg/dL.

So then what are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a kind of fat. High levels of triglycerides may be linked with a greater risk for heart disease. People who are overweight and have diabetes are likely to have high levels of triglycerides, too.

How often should I get my cholesterol levels checked?

All adults should have their cholesterol tested at least once every five years. This means measuring more than just your total cholesterol – be sure you have your LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels checked as well. If you have a cholesterol problem, your doctor may monitor you at more frequent intervals.

Do women have to pay attention to cholesterol levels?

Absolutely! It’s true that before menopause women are at a lower risk of heart disease compared to men of the same age. But after menopause, when the hormone estrogen decreases, women’s risk rises. In fact, coronary heart disease is the number one killer of women. Women are 12 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than of breast cancer.

I’ve changed my lifestyle, but my cholesterol is still too high. What are my options?

Your doctor might prescribe cholesterol reducing medicine, especially if you have other heart-disease risk factors. Some medicines can lower cholesterol and reduce existing artery-clogging plaque – the buildup that makes it harder for your blood to flow.

4 Tips for Cutting Fat and Cholesterol

  1. Trim off the fat you can see before cooking meat and poultry, and drain off all fat after browning.
  2. Chill soups and stews after cooking so you can remove the hardened fat from the top.
  3. Use cooking methods that require little or no fat – boil, broil, bake, roast, poach, steam, sauté, stir-fry or microwave.
  4. Eat five or more servings of fruits or vegetables each day.