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High Cholesterol Treatment -- What Works?

Safe, effective treatment for high cholesterol isn't hard -- but it can be confusing. Get the facts.
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WebMD Feature

If you've just been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may be worried. After all, along with your age, genes, and other factors, high cholesterol is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. But while you can't turn back the clock or yank out unhealthy genes from your DNA, you can change your cholesterol numbers. That's because high cholesterol treatment works.

"We have good, safe treatments for high cholesterol," says Adolph Hutter, MD, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "They can directly lower your risks of heart attack, stroke, and death. So why not take advantage of them?"

Related Medications

More information on common Cholesterol drugs from RxList:

 

For many people, making changes to their lifestyle -- eating better, losing weight, and exercising -- will be enough to lower cholesterol. Others may benefit from medicines. Often, a combination of these approaches is the right choice.

But where do you start? "People tend to be very confused about treating high cholesterol," says Nathan D. Wong, PhD, director of the heart disease prevention program at the University of California, Irvine.

WebMD talked to experts to help reduce the confusion -- and help you sort through your high cholesterol treatment options.

Finding the Best High Cholesterol Treatment

There's a lot of variability in how high cholesterol treatments work in a given person. Treatment that did wonders for your spouse may do nothing for you. Some of it depends on your genes. You and your doctor will need to come up with a custom-tailored approach.

For most people, the first high cholesterol treatment to try is three lifestyle changes:

  • Eating better
  • Maintaining (or losing) weight
  • Exercising more

Some people, if they already have other risk factors -- such as diabetes -- may immediately start medication as well.

While lifestyle changes can really help bring your cholesterol down, Wong says that not enough people give them a real chance.

"The problem is that both patients and their doctors like immediate results," he tells WebMD. "Lowering your cholesterol with exercise and diet is just not like that."

So try to give high cholesterol lifestyle treatments time to work. If they do, you can avoid the hassle of being on a daily medicine for the rest of your life.

Eating Right as a High Cholesterol Treatment

We've all heard that diet has an effect on cholesterol, but there's much confusion about what you should or shouldn't eat. Here's a rundown of the current evidence.

  • Fat. If you have high cholesterol, you should cut down on saturated fat -- found in fatty meats and whole milk dairy products like cheese, ice cream, and butter. You also need to reduce your intake of trans fats, a man-made fat found in many processed foods, like stick margarine.

    But the message isn't as simple as "fat is bad." There are a number of foods with healthy unsaturated fats that will actually improve your cholesterol. They include fatty fish like tuna and salmon, walnuts, and almonds. Since even good fats are high in calories, you should still eat them in moderation.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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or
Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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