The Basics of Cholesterol
How Much Cholesterol Is Too Much?
Everyone over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years.
Your doctor may recommend a non-fasting cholesterol test or a fasting cholesterol test. A non-fasting test will show total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. A fasting test, called a lipid profile or a lipoprotein analysis, will measure your LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol. It will also measure triglycerides.
Knowing your cholesterol numbers is important because they are one part of an equation that helps your doctor determine your risk of having a heart problem or a stroke over the next 10 years. Once that risk is known, you and your doctor can work together to come up with a plan for reducing it. Part of that plan may include lowering your level of cholesterol.
How Can I Lower My Cholesterol and Risk of Heart Disease?
A few simple changes can help lower your cholesterol and your risk for heart disease:
- Eat low-cholesterol foods. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your average daily cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams. If you already have heart disease, you should limit your daily intake to less than 200 milligrams. You can significantly reduce the cholesterol in your diet by avoiding foods high in saturated fat and foods with large amounts of dietary cholesterol.
- Quit smoking. Smoking lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol. This trend can be reversed if you quit smoking.
- Exercise. Exercise increases HDL in some people. Even moderate-intensity activities, if done daily, can help control weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure -- all risk factors for heart disease.
- Take medication your doctor prescribes. Sometimes making changes to your diet and increasing exercise is not enough to bring cholesterol down. You may also need to take a cholesterol-lowering drug.
How Is High Cholesterol Treated?
The main goal in lowering cholesterol is to lower LDL and raise your HDL. There are two key ways to lower cholesterol: eat a heart-healthy diet and take cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Doctors determine your "goals" for lowering LDL based on your chance of having a heart problem or stroke in the next 10 years. To determine that risk, your doctor will consider several factors including:
- Your cholesterol numbers
- Your age
- Your smoking habits
- Your blood pressure
- Your use of blood pressure medicines
The doctor will also consider whether or not you already have heart disease or diabetes.
Once your risk is known, you and your doctor together will work out a strategy for achieving and maintaining a healthy level of cholesterol in your blood. That strategy could focus just on healthy lifestyle choices. But it could also include taking a medicine that will lower cholesterol.
If you are at risk for heart disease and need medicine, your doctor will want your cholesterol to decrease by 30-50%.