Cholesterol counts measure LDL and HDL blood levels. Undesirable cholesterol levels overall can clog the arteries and increase the risk for heart disease. For an accurate cholesterol count, it’s best to understand “good” and “bad” cholesterol.

Cholesterol circulates throughout the blood by lipoproteins that are made up of fat and protein deposits. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is considered the “bad” cholesterol, the American Heart Association explains. It causes the buildup in arteries of hard deposits known as plaque.

Plaque buildup clogs the arteries over time and leads to hardening of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. This leads to heart disease. When clots form and block the narrowed arteries, it can result in heart attack or stroke. Plaque buildup may also cause peripheral artery disease, which reduces blood supply to the legs.

High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is the “good” cholesterol. It flushes harmful LDL cholesterol out of the arteries and back to the liver where it is eliminated from the body. While high levels of LDL cholesterol are harmful to the heart, high levels of HDL cholesterol are heart healthy.

Heart health means lowering your LDL cholesterol and raising your HDL levels to reduce the risk of heart disease.

When you have cholesterol checked by the doctor, the levels are measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood, or mg/dL.

LDL cholesterol levels of less than 100 mg/dL or 100 to 129 mg/dL are considered optimal or near optimal, according to MedlinePlus, the source for the National Institutes of Health. Counts of 130 to 159 mg/dL are considered borderline high, with 160 to 189 mg/dL high, and 190 mg/dL or above considered very high.

Desirable levels of HDL for men and women are at 60mg/dL or above, according to the Mayo Clinic. Measurements lower than 40 mg/dL for men indicate risk for heart disease. For women, HDL levels less than 50 mg/dL are at risk.

Medication is prescribed for patients with unhealthy cholesterol levels at risk for heart disease, but lifestyle changes also can improve LDL and HDL cholesterol counts. A heart-healthy diet includes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, herring and mackerel, according to the Mayo Clinic. A heart-healthy diet also includes high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, oat bran, and beans.

Exercising, not smoking, losing weight, drinking alcohol in moderation, and avoiding saturated fats also improves LDL and HDL cholesterol levels to reduce the risk of heart disease, the Mayo Clinic says.

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