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Knowing Your Risk for High Cholesterol

We’ve all heard the warnings about cholesterol. Too much of the ‘bad cholesterol’ can be dangerous, so we need to stay vigilant about our cholesterol levels. But what’s the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol? Recognizing the factors that may create health risks becomes more important as you age. Understanding how cholesterol can affect you is an important first step toward learning healthy behaviors that can reduce your risk for high cholesterol.

‘Good’ vs. ‘Bad’ Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance made in your liver. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones and digest fatty foods. It’s not inherently ‘bad.’ In fact, your body needs it to build cells. There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol. Too much of the bad kind or not enough of the good kind increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Dietary cholesterol is in food we get from animals, such as egg yolks, fatty meats, and cheese. In general, foods that are high in dietary cholesterol are also high in saturated fat (LDL cholesterol).

Why Cholesterol Matters

Cholesterol circulates in the blood. As the amount of cholesterol in your blood increases, so does the risk to your health. It’s important to have your cholesterol tested so you can know your levels. Cholesterol can join with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible – a condition known as artherosclerosis If a blood clot forms and blocks one of these narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can result.

Risk Factors

Certain health conditions, your lifestyle, and your family history can raise your risk for high cholesterol. These are called “risk factors.” You can’t control some of these risk factors, such as your age or your family history. But you can take steps to lower your risk for high cholesterol by changing things you can control. Your lifestyle choices can increase or reduce your risk for high cholesterol.

  • Eating a diet high in saturate fat and trans-fat may contribute to high cholesterol and related conditions such as heart disease.

  • Not getting enough physical activity can make you gain weight, which can lead to high cholesterol.

  • Obesity is linked to higher triglyceride levels, higher LDL cholesterol levels, and lower HDL cholesterol levels. Obesity can also lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Talk to your health care team about a plan to reduce your weight to a healthy level.

High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. If you have other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes, your risk increases even more. The more risk factors you have and the more severe they are, the more your overall risk for high cholesterol is increased.

The 3 Cs

When it comes to controlling your cholesterol, remember: check, change, and control.

  • Check your cholesterol levels regularly. Knowing your numbers is key.
  • Change your diet and lifestyle to help improve your levels.
  • Control your cholesterol, with help from your doctor, if needed.

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