When it comes to the risk factors for heart disease, there are those we cannot control, such as age, gender, heredity and race, and those that we can. High cholesterol falls into the latter category. Once you know your blood cholesterol level, you can work with your healthcare provider on a strategy for controlling or treating it.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced naturally in your liver and other cells. It can also enter the blood stream through various foods, especially fatty meats and dairy products. In the right amounts, cholesterol is necessary for your health because your cells use it to produce hormones, vitamin D and bile to digest fat. Cholesterol binds with proteins to create lipoproteins, which then carry it throughout the body in the blood stream.
When your body has too much cholesterol, it can accumulate in your arteries and form plaques. This accumulation can narrow the arteries and restrict blood flow. Plaque may also lead to clots that can completely block the flow of blood. If a clot breaks free and blocks an artery to the heart, it can cause a heart attack. If an artery to the brain is blocked, it can cause a stroke.
How is cholesterol tested?
When testing for cholesterol, healthcare providers measure “good” and “bad” levels that are based on the type of lipoprotein formed with the cholesterol binds with proteins. LDL, or “low density lipoprotein,” signifies a lower percentage of protein in relation to fat. This is the “bad” cholesterol that can accumulate in blood vessels as plaque. HDL, or “high density lipoprotein” is the “good” cholesterol, because it is higher in protein related to fat and can help remove plaque buildup as it moves through the body.
Your cholesterol is measured with a blood test sometimes referred to as a lipid panel. Your provider may ask you to fast for eight hours before the test to get a more accurate reading. To minimize your risk of heart disease, your levels should be:
- Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL.
- LDL (“bad” cholesterol): ideally be less than 100 mg/dL. 100 – 129 mg/dL is also considered good.
- HDL (“good” cholesterol): 50 md/dL or higher.
In addition to LDL, HDL and total cholesterol, a lipid panel will also measure triglycerides (sometimes referred to as very low density lipoproteins). This is the most common type of fat in your body, and a higher level is one indication of higher risk for heart disease. As you get older and/or gain weight, your triglyceride level can rise can rise. A level less than 150 mg/dL is considered normal.
Women over 20 should have their cholesterol levels tested at least every five years, depending on their health and medical history.
How to lower your cholesterol
Depending on your test results and family history, your healthcare provider may recommend a lifestyle, dietary or medical options for getting your levels where they should be.
Lifestyle and dietary changes can include:
- Reduce your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 300 milligrams a day of cholesterol in food – less than 200 milligrams if you have heart disease. Cut down on foods high in saturated fat, too, like fatty meats, butter, full-fat dairy products and egg yolks.
- Try the two F’s: fiber and fish. Fiber found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes has been shown to absorb cholesterol in the digestive tract. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, like salmon, tuna and mackerel, can lower cholesterol. Try two to three servings of fish a week, or consult with your provider on taking a fish oil capsule supplement.
- Get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Regular exercise, even moderate exercise like brisk walking, can reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. Read tips for working exercise into your life.
- Stop smoking. Smoking has been shown to lowever “good” cholesterol levels and is a major risk factor for heart disease. Read more about the importance of quitting smoking.
If your weight is in a healthy range and these dietary and lifestyle changes have not controlled your cholesterol, your provider may recommend a cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin.
Your Women’s Healthcare Associates provider can order a lipid panel as part of your annual women’s wellness exam. Contact an office to make an appointment.