Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that occurs naturally throughout the body and is also carried through the bloodstream in the form of spherical particles called lipoproteins. Two of these are commonly known as LDL (low-density lipoproteins, or “bad” cholesterol) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins, or “good” cholesterol). The liver makes all the cholesterol a person needs, but the food a person eats also factors into their overall cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol plays an important role in normal bodily function, such as helping the body make cell membranes, vitamin D and various types of hormones. However, when too much “bad” cholesterol builds up in the blood, it can narrow or clog the arteries, raising a person’s risk of having a heart attack, developing heart disease, or having a stroke. For many people, high cholesterol can be the result of an unhealthy diet, being overweight or smoking. In others, the problem runs in their family.
Experts recommend aiming for a lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and a higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Because HDL helps remove cholesterol from the blood, a lower LDL and higher HDL can decrease the overall blood cholesterol level.
Individuals should work with their doctor to discuss treatment options for high cholesterol. Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone can be helpful in lowering cholesterol or maintaining healthy numbers. These include avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat, eating healthier, exercising more, quitting smoking and losing weight. Doctors may also prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug, such as a statin. There are a variety of approaches to treating high cholesterol, including new medications available in clinical trials.
Prevention is key for heart health. Adults over age 20 should have their cholesterol tested every five years, and individuals with a family history should be especially diligent.