If you have heart disease or you just want to keep your ticker healthy, you've probably heard the mantra already: "Watch your cholesterol!" The type that puts your heart at risk is LDL -- the "bad" cholesterol.
It collects in the walls of your blood vessels, where it can cause blockages. Higher LDL levels put you at greater risk for a heart attack from a sudden blood clot that forms there.
Get a simple blood test to check your LDL levels. If they're high, diet and medicine can help you lower it.
What Is LDL?
Cholesterol isn't all bad. It's an essential fat that the cells in your body need.
Some cholesterol comes from the food you eat and some is made by your liver. It can't dissolve in blood, so proteins carry it where it needs to go. These carriers are called "lipoproteins."
LDL is a microscopic blob that's made up of an outer rim of lipoprotein that surrounds a cholesterol center. Its full name is "low-density lipoprotein."
What LDL Cholesterol Test Results Mean
Although heart attacks are unpredictable, higher levels of LDL raise your risk of heart disease. Until recently, guidelines for cutting those odds put an emphasis on lowering this "bad" cholesterol to specific target numbers.
Nowadays, you and your doctor work together to develop your own personal strategy to lower LDL by a certain percentage. It's based on your level of risk for heart disease or strokes. To figure it out, doctors use a calculator to estimate the chances you'll have those problems in the next 10 years.
The calculator takes several things into account, including your cholesterol numbers, age, blood pressure, whether you smoke, or if you use blood pressure medicines. All of these things affect your odds of getting a heart problem. Other risks include diabetes or a family history of heart disease.
Your doctor then sets up a plan of lifestyle changes or medication that can lower both your cholesterol and overall risk.
What You Can Do
A healthy diet and exercise can help cut your LDL levels. Eat foods that are low in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. You can lower your numbers even more if you add fiber and plant sterols (like cholesterol-lowering margarine or nuts) to your diet.
Regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart pumping, also lowers your levels.
If diet and exercise aren't enough, your doctor may suggest medications. Some drugs, like statins, help block the making of cholesterol in your liver. Other medicines reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs from your diet.
There is also a new class of drugs that you take as a shot rather than in pill form. These meds work by blocking a protein that interferes with the way your liver removes LDL from your blood. They're recommended for people who can't use statins or who have a severe form of high cholesterol.
Remember, many things besides cholesterol affect your chances of getting heart disease. Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of exercise also raise the risk. It's important to lower your LDL, but don't ignore these other health issues.