Facts About LDL: The "Bad" Cholesterol
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in your blood. Your body uses it to create cells, hormones, and Vitamin D and your liver creates all the cholesterol you need from fats in your diet.
Cholesterol doesn’t dissolve in the blood. Instead, it bonds to carriers called lipoproteins, which transport it between cells. Lipoproteins are made up of fat on the inside and protein on the outside.
“Good” vs. “Bad” Cholesterol
There are two main types of cholesterol that are carried by different types of lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can build up in your arteries, causing heart disease. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are referred to as “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to the liver. Your liver then processes the cholesterol out of your body. It’s important to have healthy levels of both types of cholesterol.
Dangers of High Cholesterol
If your cholesterol levels are too high, deposits can occur in your arteries. The cholesterol forms fatty deposits on the walls of your blood vessels, hardening and narrowing them in a condition called atherosclerosis. Narrower vessels transport less oxygen-rich blood. If your heart muscle is starved of oxygen, you can have a heart attack. If that happens in your brain, you can have a stroke.
What Are Healthy Levels of Cholesterol?
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) per tenth-liter (dL) of blood. Healthy total cholesterol levels, the sum of your HDL and LDL, should stay below 200 mg/dL. To break down that number, you want your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol to be no more than 130 mg/dL. Your HDL (“good”) cholesterol should be at least 35 mg/dL, and preferably higher – the more HDL, the better protection you have against heart disease.
How Common Is High Cholesterol?
Over 70 million Americans – a full third of the American population – have high levels of LDL cholesterol. Of these people, only one in three has their condition under control, and only half are receiving treatment for high cholesterol.
People with high cholesterol have twice the risk of heart disease as people with healthy levels of cholesterol. Statins, the most common medication that treats high cholesterol, are the most widely-used drugs in all of human history.
Who Needs To Get Checked?
Everyone should begin getting their cholesterol checked once every five years starting at the age of 20. However, risk levels normally don’t rise until later in life. Men should begin monitoring their cholesterol levels more closely starting at age 45. Women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than men until menopause, at which point their levels begin to rise. For this reason, women should begin getting checked regularly around age 55.
Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
There are a number of factors that put you at risk for developing high cholesterol. Some, you cannot do anything about. Cholesterol levels rise with age, especially in women after menopause. Heredity also plays a factor since your genes partially determined by how much cholesterol your liver makes. Look out for a family history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or early heart disease.
However, you can do something about the other risks. Physical activity reduces cholesterol levels, as does reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Losing weight also helps. If you smoke cigarettes, quit – they damage your blood vessels.
Lose Weight and Exercise
The Surgeon General recommends you exercise at least two hours and 30 minutes per week, or for 30 minutes most days. Exercise lowers your LDL levels and boosts your HDL levels, plus it helps you lose weight. Losing weight also helps lower your cholesterol levels. If you’re overweight, you don’t have to lose it all – losing just 5-10 percent of your body weight can have a big impact on lowering your cholesterol.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Try to reduce the amount of saturated fats in your diet, which your body coverts into cholesterol. Saturated fats are found in dairy and fatty meats, so switch to lean, skinless meats. Avoid trans-fats, found in commercially-packaged baked goods like cookies and crackers. Load up on whole grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Talk to Your Doctor
Get your cholesterol tested, especially if you’re at risk. If your levels are high or borderline, work with your doctor to find out the best treatment plan for you. Your doctor may prescribe you statins. If you take your statins as prescribed, they can lower your LDL levels by about 30 percent. Over 30 million Americans take statins. Other medications also treat high cholesterol.
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