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When was the last time you had your cholesterol checked? You could be walking around with high cholesterol and not realize it because it is largely an asymptomatic condition, meaning you cannot readily see or feel symptoms of high cholesterol. High cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. One in every six adult Americans has high cholesterol so since September is National Cholesterol Education Month, now is an ideal time to check your cholesterol and take steps to lower it if it is high.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fatlike substance that the body produces naturally. Cholesterol is in the bloodstream and your body’s cells. It’s important to your body because it is used to make new cells. The rest of the cholesterol found in the body comes from the food you eat, primarily from animal products such as meat, cheese, and butter. Foods that come from plants contain no cholesterol.

Cholesterol Sources

Understanding Cholesterol

Too much cholesterol can bind with other substances in the blood to form a plaque buildup in the arteries that carry blood to the heart. As plaque accumulates in the artery walls, it begins to clog the artery. This condition is called atherosclerosis. It causes the inside walls of the arteries to become rough and the openings become smaller. As the condition gets worse, the muscular walls of the arteries get thicker and stiffer, which narrows the openings even more and makes it more difficult for blood to flow.


All along these rough areas on the inner artery walls, blood cells called platelets can stick to the surface, clumping together and potentially forming a blood clot. Eventually, the artery can become completely closed or the plaque can rupture and trigger a blood clot, which can travel to the heart (causing a heart attack) or to the brain (causing a stroke), among other serious conditions. This is why controlling cholesterol levels is so important.

Types of Cholesterol

There are two main kinds of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is also called "good" cholesterol. LDL is called "bad" cholesterol. When we talk about high cholesterol, we are talking about "bad" LDL cholesterol. Triglycerides, another fatty-like substance in the blood can also lead to clogged arteries. 

Seventy-one million American adults have high cholesterol, but only one-third of them have the condition under control. Celebrate National Cholesterol Education Month by getting your cholesterol levels screened.


Screening Cholesterol

Screening is the key to detecting high cholesterol. Because high cholesterol does not have symptoms, many people do not know that their cholesterol is too high. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to check your cholesterol level. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked every 5 years.

Preventing High Cholesterol

Make therapeutic lifestyle changes by:

Eating a healthy diet. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which tend to raise cholesterol levels. Other types of fats, such as polyunsaturated fats, can actually lower blood cholesterol levels. Eating fiber also can help lower cholesterol. 

Exercising regularly. Physical activity can help lower cholesterol. The Surgeon General recommends that adults engage in moderate-intensity exercise for 2 hours and 30 minutes every week.

Maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can raise your cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help lower your cholesterol.

Not smoking. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible. Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions and stay on your medications, if prescribed, to control your cholesterol.

Know Your Numbers

In the past, managing high cholesterol was a matter of knowing your numbers for total cholesterol and triglycerides. Further research has shown that a better way to manage high cholesterol is to understand what your risks are, including your cholesterol numbers, and working with your healthcare providers to lower your risk.

How can you know what your risk is? Four key elements help define that risk for you. These are your body mass index (BMI, a calculation of your weight related to your height), blood pressure, fasting blood sugar, and total cholesterol.

The ideal numbers are:

  • BMI less than 25 kg/m2
  • Blood pressure lower than 120/80 mmHg
  • Fasting blood glucose less than 100 mg/dL
  • Total cholesterol less than 180 mg/dL

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention and American Heart Association