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Cholesterol - What Is It And Why You Should Care

Cholesterol is a fat like substance that travels in the blood. Some of it is needed by your body to build cell walls and help with other body functions.

Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and the foods you eat. In your body, it's made in the liver. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs so you need to control what you eat not to exceed what your body already produces.

A total cholesterol number over 200 increases your risk of heart disease.

There are different types of cholesterol and knowing their numbers is important. The two types of numbers you should be aware of are:

"Bad" LDL cholesterol - Think of it as LDL = lousy = bad
It's bad because it leaves the cholesterol fat in the walls of your arteries. This can reduce normal blood flow and cause a serious health risk.

"Good" HDL cholesterol - Think of it as HDL = healthy = good
It's good because it carries the cholesterol fat away from your arteries and back to your liver and out of your body. This helps prevent heart disease or a stroke.

Triglycerides is another type of fat in your blood. High levels of triglycerides may increase your risk of heart disease.

You can't "feel" high cholesterol. But when there's too much of it in your body, it needs to be treated. Over time, excess cholesterol may build up in your blood vessels. This buildup is called plaque. It narrows your blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the heart. This means:

  • Your heart may have to pump harder.
  • You may have a heart attack or a stroke.

A total cholesterol number over 200 can increase your risk of heart disease. More than half the adults in the United States have a number above 200. If your total number is between 200 and 239, you have borderline high cholesterol and may need to talk to your doctor. A simple blood test by your doctor will help you see where you stand. There are many reasons for a high cholesterol number. These include:

  • Poor diet and exercise habits
  • Family history of high cholesterol
  • Diseases such as diabetes

Desirable Borderline High
Less than 200 200-239 Above 240

What you don't know might hurt you. If you don't know your cholesterol number, you're not alone. Some people have never been checked. But everyone should know his or her cholesterol number. Now's the time to get your cholesterol checked. A simple blood test by your doctor will help you see where you stand. It's one of the best things you can do for your health. A 10% decrease in total cholesterol may reduce your risk for heart disease by 30%.

Your doctor can help you develop a plan to help you lower high cholesterol. A healthy diet and exercise are a good start.

  • Eat fewer high fat foods.
  • Choose food high in fiber.
  • Go easy on salt and sugar.

Start Exercising!
Check with your doctor first, but get up and move. Your body needs it. Find something you like to do and do it often. Make exercise part of your weekly routine and stick with it.

When diet and exercise aren't enough you might need specific medication t o help you. Two out of three adults, diet and exercise may not lower it enough. To reach your goal, your doctor may add medication to your plan. This is a common and safe way to lower high cholesterol.

Anyone can have high cholesterol. It doesn't matter if you're active or thin, young or old. There are several types of medicine. Some include:

  • Nicotinic acid
  • Fibrates
  • Statins

The ones most prescribed by doctors are statins.


  • Lower the amount of cholesterol your body makes.
  • Remove LDL "bad" cholesterol.
  • Are prescribed to millions of people.
  • Have been prescribed for 15 years.

Statins are safe and effective.

Most people don't have major problems with statins. In general, serious side effects are rare. If you are prescribed a statin, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can tell you about possible side effects. Under the new cholesterol guidelines, 36 million Americans would be eligible for drug therapy.

Always follow your doctor's advice. This will help you keep a good cholesterol number. Your number will creep up again if you stop treatment. Medicine is only one part of your plan. Here are some other things you can do to help you stay on track.

  • Eat healthy and exercise.
  • Take your medicine as prescribed.
  • Have your cholesterol checked at your next doctor visit.

If you know you have high cholesterol or you are at risk, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you set a goal for your cholesterol. Reaching your goal is a great way to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. To help you talk to your doctor about cholesterol, see the following questions.

Important Resources:
American Heart Association
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health
National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute
American Medical Association
To learn more: http://www.forcholessterol.com

Adapted by Editorial Staff, July, 2005
Last update, August 2008


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