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September is National Cholesterol Month: Here’s what you need to know

National Cholesterol Education Month is a good time to learn more about the fatty chemical that plays such a vital role in your overall health. High levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, can increase your risk for coronary heart disease, which accounts for roughly 600,000 deaths annually in the U.S.

During National Cholesterol Education Month, ask your doctor about having your cholesterol checked and learn what cholesterol guidelines are appropriate for you, based on your age, family history, weight, activity level, and any pre-existing health conditions. By keeping your cholesterol levels within the healthy range, you can avoid commonly associated health risks, such as heart disease and stroke.

What is cholesterol, and why does it matter?

Cholesterol is the fatty chemical that makes up the outer lining of the cells in your body. Although your body makes enough cholesterol on its own, it also takes in additional cholesterol through the foods you eat, mostly through foods from animals.

LDL lipoprotein is known as bad cholesterol, because when elevated, it leads to an increased risk for coronary heart disease. HDL, on the other hand, is considered good cholesterol. When your doctor suggests the need to lower cholesterol, this typically means you need to lower your level of LDL, or bad cholesterol, but not the level of HDL, or good cholesterol.

Why is high cholesterol unhealthy?

More than 102 million Americans who are 20 years of age and older have levels of cholesterol at or above 200mg/dL—a level that’s considered unhealthy. More than 35 million adults have levels higher than 240 mg/dL, putting them at a high risk for heart disease.

This risk occurs because waxy cholesterol deposits build up on the artery walls, creating a hard, thick substance called plaque. This thickening causes a narrowing of the arteries in a process known as atherosclerosis. If not prevented, this blockage can eventually lead to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.

What are the causes of high cholesterol?

The causes of high cholesterol are many. Major contributors include:

  • Certain food choices, such as high-fat animal protein
  • Heredity, since a predisposition for high cholesterol can be inherited
  • Being overweight
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Age and gender (younger women typically have lower levels than younger men, while women 60 to 65 years of age have higher levels than men in the same age group)
  • Alcohol use (although alcohol increases good cholesterol, it does not lower bad cholesterol and actually increases triglycerides)
  • Stress (most likely from related coping mechanisms, such as overeating or high alcohol consumption)

What factors can lower cholesterol?

In most cases, you can lower cholesterol simply by making lifestyle changes. Start by adding more exercise and physical activity to your daily routine. Adults should get at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise, every week.

You can also monitor your diet to lower cholesterol. Try reducing your intake of saturated fat, a type of fat typically found in foods that come from animals. Replace these foods with low-fat, high-fiber foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Weight can be another factor. If you’re currently overweight, ask your doctor about possible weight loss measures you can take. You may also be advised to reduce stress, which often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating.

Although it’s unclear why, alcohol intake increases HDL (good) cholesterol, without reducing LDL, or bad cholesterol. Be cautious with alcohol use in any case, since drinking too much can damage the liver and heart muscle, resulting in high blood pressure and an increase in triglycerides.

What’s the best way to maintain normal cholesterol?

Once you’ve reached a normal cholesterol level, your goal will be to maintain it. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends testing every five years for adults 20 years of age and older. Since high cholesterol exhibits no associated symptoms, a simple blood test, called a lipoprotein profile, is the only way to determine whether or not you have it.

If your test results show a higher than normal level of LDL, your doctor can help you determine what steps you should take to return to a normal cholesterol level. In many cases, you’ll be advised to make certain lifestyle changes. If these prove ineffective, however, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-reducing medications.

The following cholesterol guidelines show the desired levels for most adults:

Low LDL (bad cholesterol) – Less than 110 mg/dL

High HDL (good cholesterol) – 35 mg/dL or higher

Triglycerides – Less than 150 mg/dL

Total Cholesterol – Less than 170 mg/dL

Ask your doctor how often you should have your cholesterol tested, based on your age, gender, weight, and other factors. Don’t wait until high cholesterol becomes a health issue. Your doctor can be a valuable partner in helping you reach and maintain your personal cholesterol goals.