High cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Seventy-one million American adults have high cholesterol, and of those, only one-third have the condition under control. September is National Cholesterol Education Month, and a great time to learn more about what cholesterol is and how you can manage your risk.
What exactly is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance your body needs to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. Unfortunately, cholesterol can also be found in some of the foods you eat. When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can build up on the walls of your arteries and form blockages—leading to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, you may be diagnosed with high cholesterol. By itself, this condition usually has no signs or symptoms, so many people don’t know their cholesterol levels are too high.
Two kinds of cholesterol can be found in the body: High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is also called “good” cholesterol while LDL is called “bad” cholesterol. When doctors talk about high cholesterol, they are speaking of “bad” LDL cholesterol. The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the greater your chance is of getting heart disease. The higher the level of HDL cholesterol in your blood, the lower your chance is of developing heart disease.
What are the risk factors?
LDL cholesterol is produced naturally by the body, but many people inherit genes from their mother, father, or even grandparents that cause them to make too much. Those with a previous history of heart attack, stroke, carotid artery disease, or artery blockage in the neck, PAD, or blockages in the extremities—such as the arms and legs—are considered at high risk for heart disease.
Eating foods with saturated fat or trans fats also increases the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. If this condition runs in your family, lifestyle modifications may not be enough to help lower your LDL blood cholesterol.
Diabetes also increases the risk for high cholesterol. Your body needs glucose (sugar) for energy. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps move glucose from the food you eat to your body’s cells. If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should, or both.
How do I get my cholesterol checked?
It’s important to have your cholesterol levels checked regularly by your doctor. It takes a team to develop and maintain a successful health program, and you and your doctor each play an important role in maintaining and improving your heart health. Work with your doctor to determine your risk and the best way to minimize that risk. In all cases, lifestyle changes are important to reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke. Learn how to make diet and lifestyle changes easy and lasting. In some cases, cholesterol-lowering statin medicines may also provide help. Make sure you understand instructions for taking medication, because it won’t work if you don’t take it as directed.
How do I lower my cholesterol?
As part of a complete prevention and treatment program for managing your cholesterol and lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke, your doctor may suggest a few lifestyle changes. Regardless of whether your plan includes drug therapy, you can do plenty to improve your cholesterol levels and your overall health:
Change your diet: To lower cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends eating a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and nuts. You should also limit red meat and sugary foods and beverages.
Get up and move: Just 40 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity (walking, swimming, bicycling, or a dance class), done three to four times a week, is enough to lower both cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Avoid tobacco smoke: If you smoke, your cholesterol level is another good reason to quit. Everyone should avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
Once you’ve talked with your health care professional about your cholesterol levels, eating a healthy diet and including exercise in your routine can give you the edge in the fight against heart disease and stroke. Let your doctor be your coach in combating heart disease and stroke. It’s your health and your heart—take care of it!
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Content provide by ©2020 American Heart Association, Inc.