More likely than not, you know someone with high cholesterol, or maybe you have been diagnosed with it yourself: roughly 38% of American adults have been diagnosed with this condition – and even more might have it and not know, because there are no symptoms. It is important to get checked and to know your numbers, though, because high cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in America. In honor of September being National Cholesterol Education Month, we will discuss what different cholesterol levels mean, what is considered high, and how to help manage and lower your high cholesterol.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is produced naturally by your liver and found in your blood; it is also found in certain foods and animal products, and eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fat will raise the levels of cholesterol in your blood. While we might automatically think of all cholesterol as “bad,” it’s actually necessary for good health, because your body uses it for making hormones and digesting fatty foods; in addition, there are two types of cholesterol, one that is considered “good” and one that is considered “bad.” Having a higher “good” number is helpful, but having too much “bad” cholesterol in your blood is a problem, and puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke. There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, so the only way to know if you have it is to get blood work done.
Understanding Cholesterol Numbers
Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins:
- LDL (low density lipoprotein), also known as “bad” cholesterol, because it builds up on the walls of your blood vessels in the form of plaque; this plaque makes your blood vessels narrower, meaning blood will have a harder time flowing to and from your heart, which is what causes heart attacks. So, if your LDL number is high, you are at greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (High-density lipoprotein), also known as “ good” cholesterol. Your body will absorb this type of cholesterol, carry it back to the liver, and flush it from the body. Having a higher HDL will help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
When you have a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, you will be presented with 4 numbers:
- Your bad cholesterol, or LDL, which should be less than 100 mg/dL
- Your good cholesterol, or HDL, which should be at least 50 mg/dL in women and 40 mg/dL in men.
- Your total cholesterol number, which should be between 125 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL.
- Your triglycerides, which is a type of fat in the blood. Normal levels should be below 150 mg/dL.
According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 5 adolescents, and nearly 93 million U.S. adults aged 20 or older have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL. Nearly 29 million adult Americans have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Everyone is at risk for developing high cholesterol, although your risk does go up with age; it can be caused by multiple factors, including your lifestyle and a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, known as familial hypercholesterolemia. In many cases, though, your diet is the culprit: your body naturally produces all the bad cholesterol it needs, so eating foods high in certain fats will cause your body to produce too much LDL cholesterol. The main dietary causes of high bad cholesterol include:
- Not eating enough foods containing healthy fats– Healthy fats will help increase your good HDL cholesterol levels.
- Eating foods containing unhealthy fats– Full-fat dairy products, butter, deep-fried foods, and baked goods such as biscuits and pastries are high in trans fats, which raise LDL levels.
- Not eating enough foods containing fiber– Eating foods high in dietary fiber, like veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can reduce the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood.
- Older age– The older you get, the harder it is for your body to clear cholesterol from your blood.
Conditions That Increase Your Risk
Certain health conditions can increase your risk of high cholesterol, such as:
- Type 2 diabetes– lowers your good cholesterol levels and raises bad cholesterol levels
- Obesity– linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels, and lower HDL cholesterol levels
Prevention & Treatment of High Cholesterol
Getting your cholesterol levels checked is extremely important for catching and managing high bad cholesterol, since there are no symptoms of this condition. Everyone aged 20 or older should get tested every 5 years; if you have cardiovascular disease risk factors, you should get tested more often.
If you do find out that your numbers are high, you can take steps to help lower your cholesterol levels, including:
- Losing weight- Being overweight or obese raises bad cholesterol levels and lowers good cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help improve those numbers.
- Eating a healthy diet– Limit foods high in saturated fat, such as full-fat dairy products, fatty meats like red meat, fried foods, butter, and coconut oil. Instead focus on eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy protein sources such as fish, lentils, and nuts, avocados, low-fat milk, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and foods high in fiber.
- Exercising- A sedentary lifestyle will lower your good cholesterol levels. You should aim to do about 2 ½ hours a week of some type of aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, or biking.
- Quitting smoking– Using tobacco products, including vaping, lowers your HDL cholesterol. By quitting, you can lower your LDL cholesterol and increase your HDL cholesterol levels.
If you are unable to get your cholesterol numbers down through diet and exercise alone, you might need to take medications like statins to help manage your cholesterol, and lower your risk of heart disease. You will likely be prescribed medicine if:
- You have already had a heart attack
- Your LDL cholesterol level is 190 mg/dL or higher
- You’re 40-75 years old and have diabetes
Having the right health insurance plan means being able to get tested and treated for conditions like high cholesterol, without having to worry about forking out a lot of money for medical bills. If you do not have health insurance, or your current plan is not sufficient for your needs or is too expensive, EZ can help. One of our highly trained agents will work with you to compare available plans in your area and will find the right one for your medical and financial needs. All of our services are free, so your focus can be on finding a great plan, not worrying about spending extra money. To get free instant quotes, simply enter your zip code in the bar above, or to speak to a local agent, call 888-350-1890. No obligation and no hassle.