More than 102 million American adults have unhealthy cholesterol levels. Because there are no symptoms, many individuals with high cholesterol remain unaware that they carry a higher risk for life-threatening conditions.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance the liver naturally produces daily. It travels throughout the body in two forms: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Levels of good and bad cholesterol vary based on a variety of factors, including lifestyle and diet.
• “Bad” Cholesterol: Low-density lipoproteins are known as “bad” cholesterol because too much in the bloodstream can narrow and clog arteries. Foods with trans- or saturated fats may increase LDL levels.
“Good” Cholesterol: High-density lipoproteins are known as the “good” cholesterol because it carries LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, away from the arteries and back to the liver. Heart healthy fats can improve HDL and foods that have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Note that even healthy fats should be consumed in moderation.
What’s the Risk?
In general, adults should aim to keep total cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dL. Optimal levels of HDL should be greater than 60 mg/dL for adults. Ideally, LDL should stay below 100 mg/dL. Untreated, high cholesterol can lead to chronic, life-threatening conditions.
• Heart Disease: Those with high cholesterol have about twice the risk of heart disease compared to people with lower levels.
• Obesity: Body weight has a direct connection to cardiovascular risk factors, including high cholesterol. Losing 5 to 10 percent of weight can improve cholesterol levels significantly.
• Type 2 Diabetes: The American Heart Association reports a link between high cholesterol and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of adults with high cholesterol are trying to lower their levels. Although some risk factors are uncontrollable, there are ways to increase HDL and lower LDL levels.
• Improve Diet: A diet rich in grains, fibers, plant-based fats and lean proteins is crucial when treating high cholesterol. Avoiding high-sodium foods, fried foods and animal fats help weight loss and managing high cholesterol.
• Get Moving: Physical activity is an effective means of lowering bad cholesterol levels. Adults should maintain about 150 minutes of exercise a week, while children and adolescents should get a minimum of 60 minutes per day.
• Quit Smoking: Cigarettes lower good cholesterol and significantly heighten the risk of heart disease.
• Be Consistent: Healthy adults are advised to check their cholesterol levels with their primary health care provider at least once every five years.