When You Know Your Levels, You Level the Playing Field

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 07, 2021
3 min read

By Robert Eckel, as told to Janie McQueen

Your body needs cholesterol. The healthy kind, for example, helps your body make hormones and substances that aid digestion. But the “bad” cholesterol, or LDL -- low-density lipoprotein -- can increase your risk of having heart disease and stroke. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to all the numbers your cholesterol test reveals, not just the total.

LDL cholesterol can cause serious health problems. It tends to build up in your artery walls, where it attracts white blood cells and leads to swelling and inflammation. Plaque also forms. As this process goes on, the plaque can grow and block blood flow.

A heart attack or stroke usually happens when this plaque lining is weak, and breaks. The blood clot that forms around the break can obstruct circulation to the heart or brain.

Your doctor or provider will check your cholesterol with a blood test. Sometimes they’ll ask you to fast for 12 hours before you get your blood drawn. It’s not always necessary, though.

The test will measure your total cholesterol, including LDL; HDL -- high-density lipoprotein (sometimes dubbed the “good” kind); and triglycerides, which are fats in your blood. Your doctor will study them and go over with you what all the numbers mean for your health.

Lifestyle changes and medication are the two key ways to keep your LDL cholesterol under control. Be sure to check with your doctor before you start a new routine. It’s also a good idea to get advice from a registered dietitian.

Some of the healthy habits you should adopt include reading food labels and choosing products lower in saturated fat. Eat lean poultry and fish as your major meat sources. Add lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains to your plate, too. Stay active. A moderate level of physical activity should be enough to help keep your numbers down.

If your doctor still finds your LDL cholesterol is still too high, they might prescribe a statin drug. Sometimes other drugs can help keep your levels in check, too.

Above all, it’s essential to recognize how cholesterol factors into heart disease and stroke. Develop new behavior patterns -- and own them. As you make your changes, keep track of your levels. Continue to discuss your progress and management goals with your doctor.

There are many things that can keep your numbers high. One is not owning up to cholesterol problems and making the necessary lifestyle changes. Another is not taking your meds as prescribed, or not working with your doctor to find other choices if side effects occur. Then there are things like eating out too much and not getting enough exercise.

Sometimes your cholesterol will run high no matter what you do or how healthy your diet is. Such is the case with familial hypercholesterolemia, or genetic high cholesterol. It’s common -- about one in 250 people have it.

The condition happens because of a mutated gene that gets passed down in families. It can cause your body’s LDL cholesterol numbers to shoot up twice as much as the average. The good news is that doctors can catch it early. It can even be diagnosed at birth or early childhood.

Although lifestyle upgrades, improving your diet, and getting more exercise can help, you may still need medication to bring your levels down to reduce your risks of heart disease.