You may already know that high blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but did you know that high cholesterol is also a silent, asymptomatic problem that can only be detected through regular preventive screenings?
As experienced cardiologists who are dedicated to patient awareness and education, the team at ECCA knows that understanding cholesterol — both good and bad — and the role it plays in cardiovascular health is the first step in achieving healthy cholesterol levels.
Given that September is National Cholesterol Education Month, there’s no time like the present to gain better insight into the two main types of cholesterol, how they function in your body, and why it’s imperative to keep your levels under control, especially as you age.
Blood cholesterol explained
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your body uses when making new cells. It plays an invaluable role in keeping you healthy, as long as you don’t have too much of the wrong kind — or too little of the right kind — traveling through your blood.
Many of the factors that influence the kind and amount of cholesterol that’s circulating in your blood are controllable, including your diet, level of physical activity, and weight. Uncontrollable factors like age and genetics can also influence the kind and amount of cholesterol you have.
Good versus bad cholesterol
To travel around your body to where it’s needed, cholesterol hitches a ride on special proteins called lipoproteins. These “fat rafts” that circulate freely in your blood are categorized as “bad” or “good” based on how they behave.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol accounts for most of the cholesterol in your blood. Even though your body needs and uses LDL cholesterol, this key substance goes from vital to unhealthy when there’s too much of it.
When LDL blood cholesterol levels are high, your body stores as much of the excess as it can inside the walls of your blood vessels. This is called plaque, and it builds up inside your vessels over time, making them narrower and less flexible until the blood flow is limited or completely blocked.
High LDL cholesterol is a top risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — also known as good cholesterol — grabs excess LDL cholesterol from your blood and carries it back to your liver, where it’s processed as waste and flushed from your body.
Because HDL cholesterol acts like a scavenger of excess LDL cholesterol, having high HDL levels helps reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol that winds up on the insides of your blood vessels.
And when your blood vessels are clear, flexible, and healthy, you’re less susceptible to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, three leading causes of mortality among men and women in the US.
Having low HDL levels, on the other hand, can raise those cardiovascular risks, particularly if you also have high levels of bad LDL cholesterol.
Don’t forget about triglycerides
Your cholesterol levels are assessed through a simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile. Besides measuring your HDL and LDL levels, this test also measures the level of triglycerides in your blood.
As the most common form of fat in your body, triglycerides store excess energy (calories) from your diet. Like HDL and LDL cholesterol, they circulate through your blood.
Having high triglyceride levels along with high LDL cholesterol and/or low HDL cholesterol is associated with plaque buildup in blood vessel walls and a greater risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Cholesterol, by the numbers
Because you can’t feel the day-to-day effects of high cholesterol in your body, the only way to know you have it — so you can take steps to reverse it — is through routine blood testing.
While the blood lipid levels that are optimal for you are partly determined by your gender and overall health, desirable blood lipid levels for most healthy people are:
- Total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol below 130 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol above 60 mg/dL
- Triglycerides below 150 mg/dL
If you’re at risk of developing heart disease, however, you should aim to keep your LDL levels below 100 mg/dL; if you already have heart disease or diabetes, it’s best to keep your LDL levels below 70 mg/dL.
For the average adult, unhealthy cholesterol levels are defined as:
- Total cholesterol above 240 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol above 160 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol below 40 mg/dL for men, and 50 mg/dL for women
- Triglycerides above 200 mg/dL
Whether you’d like to learn effective lifestyle strategies for controlling cholesterol or schedule your next blood lipid check, the team at ECCA can help. Call your nearest office in Hartford, Manchester, or South Windsor, Connecticut, today, or click online to book a visit any time.