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How Low Must Your Cholesterol Go?

Who does -- and doesn't -- need cholesterol-lowering drugs.

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"So the target is getting LDL cholesterol under 160 in everyone, to less than 130 in people who have two or more risk factors or who have a 10% to 20% risk of heart disease over 10 years, and then less than 100 in very high risk people," Schaefer says.

And the more recent studies show that very aggressive treatment -- getting LDL levels down to 70 or 80 -- reduces the risk of worsening disease or death in very high-risk patients.

Sperling notes that though it's easy to say who is at very low and very high risk of heart disease, it's not a simple thing to evaluate heart disease risk in the average middle-aged person. Shah agrees.

"Some day, we will really be able to determine each individual's risk and ferret out those who do not have risk of a heart attack," Shah says. "Unfortunately, right now our crystal ball is very fuzzy."

This means too many people get treated too aggressively, Shah says.

"We tend to treat a lot of people, out of whom only a few will benefit," he notes. "When we say a person is high risk, for example, we mean someone with a 20% chance of stroke or death in 10 years. That is 2% a year. So for 100 such patients, 98 will not have a problem, but we will give then intensive treatment anyway. Unfortunately, we are not good enough at picking out those two in 100 people who really need such treatment. That is a limitation of our ability to predict heart disease. The better we get at predicting which patients will have a heart attack, the better we can use these intensive lipid-lowering therapies."

In the meantime, Shah says, it's important to look beyond risk factors for physical signs of disease. Cholesterol Lowering Drugs -- Not the Whole Answer

Americans spend more money on cholesterol lowering drugs -- known as statins -- than any other kind of medicine. The market is growing. And it will get larger, now that new drugs that increase HDL cholesterol are making their way through clinical trials.

These drugs save lives. But they aren't the only way to lower cholesterol. Getting more exercise, eating a low-fat/reduced-calorie diet, substituting plant-sterol products for fat, eating more soy, and getting plenty of fiber all reduce cholesterol. Add them all up, and the effect is similar to that seen with cholesterol-lowering drugs -- without the side effects or high cost.

And drugs can never be the answer to America's heart disease epidemic, Sperling notes.

"If we put statins in the drinking water, would it help public health? Yes, but public health endeavors would help more. Our obesity epidemic needs to be conquered not with medicine but with effective change for the whole population. If you're looking at cost-effectiveness, the time to teach people to eat right and exercise is when they are kids. We can do that -- or we can start throwing 10 medicines at them when they are 40 or 50 years old."

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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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