Cholesterol. Cholesterol levels do not cause symptoms for many years. Yet, if you know your cholesterol levels, you can help prevent heart disease. Only about 70% of adults in the US have their cholesterol levels tested. September is National Cholesterol Education Month—and time to learn about cholesterol and its role in heart disease.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found throughout your body. Your body makes cholesterol, which is needed to produce hormones, vitamin D and other chemicals that help your body function properly.
Cholesterol is transported through your bloodstream by lipoproteins, molecules designed to carry fat. Lipoproteins are composed of fat on the inside, which is surrounded by proteins on the outside. There are two types of lipoproteins that transport cholesterol in your body: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Both of these types of lipoproteins are needed for good health. However, the amount of each type of lipoprotein is important.
HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from all over your body to the liver, which metabolizes and removes it from your body. In contrast, LDL cholesterol is often called “bad” cholesterol because too much of it can build up in your arteries and become a key component of plaque. Once plaque accumulates in your blood vessels, blood flow is reduced or blocked and your cells may not receive sufficient amounts of oxygen and nutrients. This is when you notice symptoms. The blockage of blood vessels can lead to atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease and can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Lowering your cholesterol levels prevents heart disease because lower cholesterol levels can slow or stop the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.
How is cholesterol measured?
Cholesterol and triglycerides are measured by a blood test. Blood levels are most accurate when you have been fasting overnight.
How often should cholesterol levels be tested?
In most people, fasting levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are recommended every four to six years, beginning at 20 years of age. However, talk to your doctor regarding specific recommendations for you.
Tips to Lower Blood Cholesterol Levels
- Exercise regularly – Start exercising gradually by including walking, biking, jogging, swimming or any additional movement in your routine.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet that contains whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, nuts and beans and vegetable oils. Limit sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets.
- Maintain a healthy body mass index and weight
- Stop smoking