Some things are clearly either good or bad. Smoking is bad for you — it’s the leading cause of preventable death. Eating vegetables is good for you — it helps you manage a healthy weight and lowers your risk for different types of cancer and chronic diseases. But what about cholesterol — is cholesterol bad? Some things don’t fit in a box quite as nicely. Cholesterol is one of those things. You don’t need to be scared of cholesterol, but you need to manage healthy cholesterol levels.Cholesterol can be a scary word, but it isn't always a bad thing. Learn about cholesterol, and how to manage healthy cholesterol levels. Click To Tweet
Cholesterol isn’t “bad”
Cholesterol isn’t entirely bad or good; it’s a naturally occurring substance that your body uses to produce hormones, build cells, and help digest food. The liver produces all of the cholesterol that the body needs. However, many of the foods that we eat contain cholesterol, and our behaviors affect our cholesterol levels.
High total cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems. There is a range that you need to stay in for healthy cholesterol levels:
- Those under the age of 19 should have less than 170 mg/dL total cholesterol.
- Men and women 20 years of age and older should have between 125 to 200 mg/dL total cholesterol.
Your total cholesterol levels include LDL, HDL, and non-HDL cholesterol numbers. These individual cholesterol levels are important as well.
Generally, you want lower LDL cholesterol levels and higher HDL levels. An easy way of remembering this is associating the “l” in LDL with low and the”h” in HDL with high.
Cholesterol isn’t quite that simple, though.
What causes high cholesterol?
High cholesterol typically refers to a high total cholesterol numbers. For adults over 20 years of age, this means more than 200 mg/dL total cholesterol.
Lifestyle choices are the most common cause of high cholesterol:
- Eating an unhealthy diet that is high in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol affects the cholesterol levels in your body.
- Sedentary living and physical inactivity increases can lead to high cholesterol. Exercise increases HDL levels and makes LDL cholesterol less harmful.
- Obesity (a BMI of 30 or more) increases your risk for high cholesterol.
- Smoking cigarettes damages blood vessels, which affects the body’s ability to regulate cholesterol levels.
There are also factors that can increase your risk for high cholesterol that are beyond your control:
- It becomes more difficult for your liver to remove LDL cholesterol as you get older.
- People with diabetes are more likely to have high levels of VLDL cholesterol and lower HDL levels.
- A tendency to high cholesterol can be inherited, too.
What happens if you have high cholesterol?
You are at risk for health problems if you have low HDL cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, or total cholesterol levels outside of the healthy range. Some of these problems:
- Chest pain
- Plaque build up in the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Fatty deposits that can suddenly break and form blood clots
- Heart attack
Talk to your doctor about how to manage healthy cholesterol levels
High cholesterol doesn’t show warning signs or symptoms. A blood test is the only way to know your cholesterol numbers.
The National Institutes of Health offer general recommendations for testing cholesterol:
- Your first test should happen between the ages of nine and 11, and children should have a test every five years.
- Children with a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease, heart attack, or stroke, may need earlier or more frequent testing.
- Young adults should have a cholesterol test every five years.
- Men between the ages of 45 and 65 should have a test every one to two years.
- Women between the ages of 55 and 65 should have a test every one to two years.
Talk to your doctor and see if you should have a cholesterol test. If it has been more than one year since you have seen your doctor, you may want to schedule your annual wellness with your doctor to discuss whether or not you are due for a cholesterol check.