Why Does Cholesterol Matter?

By Laura Bollinger, RDN

 

You may or may not know much about cholesterol, so in light of National Cholesterol Education Month, we thought we’d test your cholesterol IQ.

 

Answer the following true or false questions, then read on to see how you did!

 

  1. True or False: Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.
  2. True or False: High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  3. True or False: Individuals with high cholesterol are twice as likely to have heart disease as those with lower cholesterol levels.
  4. True or False:5 million American adults have high LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
  5. True or False: Fewer than 1 in 3 adults with high LDL cholesterol control the condition.

 

Take a few minutes to think about each of these statements.

 

Do you know what your cholesterol levels are? Do you know if these statements are relevant to your health?

 

Believe it or not, all of the above statements are true!

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 102 million American adults have total cholesterol levels of more than 200 mg/dL, which is greater than the recommended healthy level.

 

The truth is, you should take the time to learn your own and possibly your family members’ cholesterol levels. Since high cholesterol doesn't typically have symptoms, the only way to know your cholesterol level is to have it tested.

 

Simply knowing your cholesterol levels can be the first step to preventing complications from elevated cholesterol, such as a stroke. While your doctor can give you more specific recommendations based on your family and medical history, the general guideline for adults is to test cholesterol every 5 years.

 

Getting cholesterol tested

 

What is cholesterol?

According to the National Institutes of Health, “cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs.”

 

They go on to say that while you need cholesterol, too much cholesterol in the blood can combine with other substances to form plaque which sticks to the walls of your arteries and can lead to coronary artery disease.

There are different types of cholesterol to be aware of. Most commonly, doctors will assess your total cholesterol and two distinct types of cholesterol―high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs).

 

HDLs are often referred to as “good” cholesterol because they pick up cholesterol from various parts of the body and carry it back to the liver. The liver can then remove cholesterol from your body.

 

LDLs, on the other hand, are referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This is because high levels of LDLs can lead to the buildup of arterial plaque hardening and thickening the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow properly throughout the body.

 

What causes high cholesterol?

While there are a variety of factors that affect cholesterol levels, an unhealthy lifestyle is the most common cause of elevated cholesterol levels. Factors including unhealthy eating habits, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking are the primary lifestyle factors contributing to high cholesterol.

 

Genetics can also play a role in raising cholesterol levels. Familial hypercholesterolemia occurs when a person inherits a genetic disorder causing high cholesterol. These individuals are unable to remove LDL from the blood resulting in very high LDL levels.

 

Other factors such as certain medications or medical conditions may increase cholesterol levels as well.

 

How Much is Too Much?

Always talk to your doctor about your health goals, particularly your laboratory values. The CDC provides the following chart as a guideline for optimal lipid levels in adults:

 

Cholesterol chart

 

The risk of health complications related to high cholesterol increases when these levels are exceeded.

 

Lifestyle for Lower Cholesterol

Diets that are high in saturated and trans fats can increase LDL cholesterol. Foods high in saturated or trans fats include meats, dairy products, and many processed, baked, and fried foods.

 

Instead of these foods, opt for foods that can actually help lower your cholesterol levels. Foods that are rich in fiber while also being low in fat support healthy cholesterol levels. These foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.

 

Sedentary or inactive lifestyles contribute to higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Regular aerobic activity helps to increase HDL levels. Since HDL helps to remove LDL, exercise can help reduce LDL cholesterol.

 

Aim to be active most days and avoid sitting for long periods of time. It’s recommended that adults get at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week. Ideally, this is spread out over most days of the week such as 30 minutes for 5 days a week.

 

Smoking lowers HDL levels while also raising LDL levels. Don’t smoke, or quit if you currently smoke, to improve cholesterol levels.

 

Conclusion

 

If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, it is important to continue to work with your healthcare provider to monitor and treat your specific condition. The good news is that therapeutic lifestyle changes can significantly improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications, including heart attack and stroke.

 

The Ornish Reversal Program is an intensive cardiac rehabilitation program that scientifically proved lifestyle changes can reverse the progression of coronary heart disease. This program focuses on healthy eating, regular physical activity, stress management, and loving, supportive relationships.

 

Adopting some or all of these healthy habits can reduce cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular complications for a lifetime.

 

For more information and support making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol levels, connect with the Cardiac Member Home if you are a Medi-Share member.