High cholesterol, also called hypercholesteremia, puts men at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral artery disease. For many men, the risk of high cholesterol starts in their 20s and increases with age.
High cholesterol tends to run in families, so obviously genes play a role. But a variety of lifestyle factors also affect cholesterol levels -- including diet, activity level, and body weight. The only way to know how high your cholesterol levels are is to get a simple blood test. Everyone over 20 should get a cholesterol test at least once a year. If your numbers are high, your doctor may recommend the test more often.
Did You Know?
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.
Cholesterol, a fat-like substance, is an essential building block of cells. But if levels of certain forms of cholesterol climb too high in the blood, it can build up on the walls of arteries like rust on the inside of a pipe. This plaque build-up eventually blocks blood flow to the heart muscle, reducing its oxygen supply. If levels of blood and oxygen to the heart drop far enough, the result can be chest pain and/or shortness of breath. In the worst case, a chunk of cholesterol-laden plaque can break off and completely block blood flow to the heart, causing a heart attack. Similarly, a blockage of blood vessels supplying the brain can cause a stroke.
The artery-clogging form of cholesterol is called low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. Another form of cholesterol, called high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is actually beneficial. It helps remove LDL from the blood and then from the body. The ideal for good health is to keep LDL levels down and HDL levels up. Cholesterol tests often include a ratio of these two forms of cholesterol. Desirable levels of LDL are less than 100 mg/dL. The ideal for HDL is 60 mg/dL or higher.
Your risk of having high cholesterol increases if:
Your diet is high in saturated fat. These fats, found in meat and full-fat dairy products, raise LDL cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol, found in eggs and organ meats, can also raise blood cholesterol levels, but not as significantly as saturated fat.
You eat foods containing trans fats. These artificially made fats, found in partially hydrogenated oils, raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol -- exactly the wrong combination.
You eat processed foods or foods high in carbohydrates. These types of foods have also been shown to increase LDL cholesterol.
You are overweight or obese. Excess weight increases LDL and lowers HDL.
You don’t get much exercise. Studies show that frequent exercise can boost HDL, the good cholesterol. Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain.
There are two different types of cholesterol tests. The simplest measures total cholesterol levels in the blood. However, most doctors use a lipoprotein analysis, which includes:
total cholesterol level
LDL cholesterol level
HDL cholesterol level
triglycerides (another fat in your blood that raises the risk of heart disease)