We’ve all heard about how we should be worried about our cholesterol intake. But what is cholesterol and why do we need to be concerned? Why do people talk about “good” and “bad” cholesterol? In this article, we’ll provide some background on cholesterol and describe how increased levels of cholesterol contribute to a higher risk of heart disease.
Background on Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and found in the blood and throughout the body. Cholesterol is required for proper body functioning and, under healthy conditions, cholesterol is needed to construct cell walls, form tissues, and make hormones, vitamin D, and bile acid.
“Good Cholesterol” is scientifically known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL carries individual cholesterol molecules to the liver, which keeps cholesterol levels balanced and ensures the body has just enough cholesterol it needs to maintain daily functions. If the liver senses that there is too much cholesterol in the system, it gets rid of it. If you don’t have enough “good cholesterol” or HDL in your system, cholesterol molecules will continue to float in your blood and won’t make their way to the liver.
“Bad Cholesterol” is, conversely, identified as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Bad cholesterol, or LDL, causes plaque formation in the arteries when allowed to circulate in the blood. If a person has high cholesterol, the buildup of plaque can make it difficult for blood vessels to carry blood to the heart. This is known as coronary artery disease (CAD) and this condition can lead to heart attack or heart failure. CAD is the leading cause of death in the United States, but luckily, this condition can be monitored and prevented.
Monitoring Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol levels are usually checked through blood tests, which are covered under most annual physicals. All patients above the age of 9 should have their cholesterol levels measured at least every 5 years. Patients of increased age, including males over 45 and females over 55, or those with increased risk for heart disease should be checked annually or at the recommendation of their doctor.
Causes and Prevention of High Cholesterol
High cholesterol can have many contributing factors, including family genetics, smoking and tobacco use, high stress levels, alcohol consumption, some foods like red meat and full-fat dairy, and low levels of physical activity. To reduce cholesterol, you should first talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns and what the best plan would be to return to healthy cholesterol levels. Some people can reduce cholesterol with smaller diet and exercise changes while others with chronic medical conditions that affect cholesterol production may require more advanced interventions. Generally, however, patients should avoid smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and be sure they are physically active for at least 3 hours each week and spend 2 days each week on muscle strengthening. Regardless of a person’s medical background or family history, all patients should be aware of their cholesterol levels at regular intervals and understand how high cholesterol levels might lead to heart disease and episodes, including heart failure and heart attack.
- “High Cholesterol Diseases,” Cleveland Clinic:https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11918-cholesterol-high-cholesterol-diseases