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The Basics of Cholesterol

Have you been diagnosed with high cholesterol? Is lowering your cholesterol a goal? The first step is to find out what cholesterol is.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and other cells. It’s also found in certain foods, such as dairy products, eggs, and meat.

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Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover preventive care services, including blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, at no cost to you. Learn more. 

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Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly. Its cell walls, also known as membranes, need cholesterol to produce hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help you digest fat. But the body only needs a limited amount of cholesterol. When there’s too much, health problems, such as heart disease, may develop.

 

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

When there’s too much cholesterol is present, plaque -- a thick, hard substance -- may form in your arteries. When plaque deposits form, the build-up narrows the space through which blood flows. Over time, this buildup causes hardening of the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. This can lead to heart disease.

When not enough blood with oxygen gets to the heart muscle, you may have chest pain called angina. If the blood supplying part of the heart with oxygen is completely blocked, you will have a heart attack. 

 

Types of Cholesterol

Cholesterol travels through the blood attached to a protein. The combination protein and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. There are three types of lipoproteins in your blood: high density, low density, and very low density. The specific type depends on how much protein there is in relation to fat.

  • Low density lipoproteins (LDL) is also called "bad" cholesterol because it can cause plaque buildup on the walls of arteries. The more LDL there is in the blood, the greater the risk of heart disease.
  • High density lipoproteins (HDL) is also called "good" cholesterol. It helps the body get rid of LDL. Maintaining a higher level of  HDL is good. If your HDL level is low your risk of heart disease goes up.
  • Very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) is similar to LDL in that it contains mostly fat and not much protein.
  • Triglycerides, another type of fat, is carried in the blood by VLDL. Excess calories, alcohol, or sugar in your body are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout your body.

 

What Factors Affect Cholesterol Levels?

A variety of factors can affect cholesterol levels. They include:

  • Diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat increase cholesterol levels. To lower your cholesterol level try to reduce the saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.
  • Weight. In addition to being a risk factor for heart disease, being overweight can also increase cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol. And it can also increase the level of HDL.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise can lower LDL and raise HDL. You should try to be physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days.
  • Age and Gender. As you get older, cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men. After menopause, though, women's LDL levels tend to rise.
  • Diabetes. Poorly controlled diabetes increases cholesterol levels. Having control of your diabetes can cause your cholesterol levels to fall.
  • Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
  • Other Factors. Certain medications and medical conditions can cause high cholesterol.

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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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