Cholesterol: What It Is and Why You Should Care
September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month. More than 93 million U.S. adults have cholesterol levels that are above a healthy level. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., yet it has no symptoms. It’s known as a silent killer and there are millions of Americans who don’t know their levels are too high. Educate yourself on what cholesterol is and get your levels checked this month!
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood that comes from either your liver or from the foods you eat such as meat, dairy and processed foods. Not all cholesterol is bad; your body uses some of it to help make cells, hormones and vitamins, but it is possible to have too much.
There are 2 different types of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol; too much of this can cause fat to build up in your arteries and block off your blood circulation. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol, it actually helps get rid of LDL by picking it up and taking it to your liver so it can be eliminated from the body. High levels of HDL are actually beneficial in most cases. Triglycerides are the most common fats we have in our body and they store excess energy from the foods we eat.
There are certain things that can increase your risk of having high cholesterol levels. Some of these factors such as age or family history, are out of your control but there are certain risk factors that can be controlled. Some health conditions that increase your risk include type 2 diabetes and obesity. Behaviors that increase your risk include smoking, eating foods high in saturated and trans fats and not getting enough physical activity. Your cholesterol does increase as you age but compared to men, women generally tend to have lower levels of LDL until they reach menopause.
Your risk of fat building up and clogging your arteries increases if you have high triglyceride levels, high LDL levels or low HDL levels.
What to do if you have high cholesterol?
There are a few ways your cholesterol levels can be managed with simple lifestyle changes. The main way is through diet and regular exercise, eating healthier and limiting your intake of foods high in saturated or trans fats can help keep your cholesterol in check. Exercising just 30 minutes a day can greatly benefit your health overall. Smoking is a big contributor to increased levels of cholesterol, therefore if this can be limited or stopped you will find great benefit. There are also medications such as statins that can help keep your LDL and triglyceride levels lower and your HDL levels high.
If cholesterol gets too high and that fat starts to build up it can cause a narrowing of your arteries which can lead to some very serious medical conditions such as a heart attack or stroke. There are no warning signs to be on the lookout for when it comes to high cholesterol, unfortunately most people don’t know they have it until they have a stroke or heart attack. The only way to monitor your levels is by visiting your doctor and getting regular blood work done. It is recommended by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that your cholesterol levels should be checked at least every 4 to 6 years and that can start being checked in young children.
Stay on top of your cholesterol, make some minor lifestyle changes and contact your doctor for regular blood work check-ups.