What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) in your blood. Your cells need cholesterol, and your body makes all it needs. But you also get cholesterol from the food you eat.
If you have too much cholesterol, it starts to build up in your arteries. (Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart.) This is called hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. It is the starting point for some heart and blood flow problems. The buildup can narrow the arteries and make it harder for blood to flow through them. The buildup can also lead to dangerous blood clots and inflammation that can cause heart attacks and strokes.
There are different types of cholesterol.
- LDL is the “bad” cholesterol. It’s the kind that can raise your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
- HDL is the “good” cholesterol. It’s the kind that is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Why does cholesterol matter?
Your cholesterol levels can help your doctor find out your risk for having a heart attack or stroke. But it’s not just about your cholesterol. Your doctor uses your cholesterol levels plus other things to calculate your risk. These include:
- Your blood pressure.
- Whether or not you have diabetes.
- Your age, sex, and race.
- Whether or not you smoke.
What affects cholesterol levels?
Many things can affect cholesterol levels, including:
- The foods you eat. Eating too much saturated fat and trans fat can raise your cholesterol.
- Being overweight. This may lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
- Being inactive. Not exercising may lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
- Age. Cholesterol starts to rise after age 20.
- Family history. If family members have or had high cholesterol, you may also have it.
How is cholesterol tested?
You need a blood test to check your cholesterol.
A cholesterol test, also called a lipid panel, measures all of the fats in your blood, including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels don’t make you feel sick. So the blood test is the only way to know your cholesterol levels.
How can you lower your risk of heart attack and stroke?
A heart-healthy lifestyle along with medicines can help lower your risk.
The way you choose to lower your risk will depend on how high your risk for heart attack and stroke is. It will also depend on how you feel about taking medicines. Your doctor can help you know your risk. Your doctor can help you balance the benefits and risks of your treatment options.
Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can help lower risk for everyone. They include:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.
- Being active on most, if not all, days of the week.
- Losing weight if you need to, and staying at a healthy weight.
- Not smoking.
Changing old habits may not be easy, but it is very important to help you live a healthier and longer life. Having a plan can help. Start with small steps. For example, commit to adding one fruit or one vegetable a day for a week. Instead of having dessert, take a short walk.
Statin medicine can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- For people whose chance of having a heart attack or stroke is high, taking a statin can be helpful.
- For other people, it’s not as clear if they need to take a statin. You and your doctor will need to look at your overall health and any other risks you have for heart attack and stroke.