Cholesterol plays a positive and important role in your health, helping your body make new cells and produce vitamins, hormones and bile acids. However, high levels of cholesterol in your blood can contribute to clogged arteries and raise your risk for heart disease and stroke. It is important to keep your cholesterol levels in a healthy range to support your heart and overall health and well-being.
Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. But foods that come from animal sources, such as meats, dairy products and oils that contain saturated fat, also raise cholesterol levels. Additionally, factors such as age, excess weight, family history, lack of exercise and smoking can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol moves through your bloodstream on proteins known as lipoproteins. There are several types:
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Often called “good cholesterol,” HDL helps your body get rid of excess cholesterol, lowering your risk for heart disease.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): LDL is the bad cholesterol that causes the most buildup in your arteries. The higher your LDL levels, the greater your risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL): VLDL is like LDL, carrying a fat called triglycerides. Alcohol and sugar are two major contributors to high triglyceride levels.
Importance of Regular Cholesterol Checks
It is possible to have abnormal cholesterol levels without having any symptoms. This is why regular cholesterol checks are so important. A simple blood test after you fast can provide the information your doctor needs to determine if treatment is needed to ensure your heart health.
The American Heart Association recommends adults 20 years and older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years if they’re at low risk. Children should be screened once between the age of 9 and 11 and then again between the ages of 17 and 21.
In general, optimal cholesterol levels for a healthy adult are:
- 60 mg/dL or higher for HDL.
- 100 mg/dL or lower for LDL.
- 200 mg/dL or lower for total cholesterol.
Your doctor will consider many factors, such as your lifestyle and other health conditions, along with your various cholesterol levels, to weigh your risk for cardiovascular disease and decide if you need treatment.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
While you can’t control factors like your age or family history, there are many lifestyle changes you can make to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, lower your risk for getting high cholesterol or manage the condition. Exercise regularly, drink alcohol in moderation or not at all, quit smoking and eat a healthy diet with limited saturated fats, trans fats and salt.
In some cases, your doctor may also recommend medication to help you reach healthier cholesterol levels. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your cholesterol or to learn more ways to lower your risk of heart disease.
Learn more about managing cholesterol.