The word “cholesterol” has taken on bad connotations over the past few decades. But cholesterol is an essential nutrient our bodies need to perform many critical functions. Let’s look at one type of cholesterol — LDL — the “bad actor” in heart disease.
WHAT IS LDL CHOLESTEROL?
Cholesterol, in general, is a waxy, fatty substance that helps your body’s cell walls maintains their integrity (among other things). In that respect, some cholesterol inside the body is good.
Too much cholesterol circulating in the blood is not a good thing, however. This excess cholesterol can stick to the interior walls of your arteries, causing a buildup called “plaque.” Think of a water pipe that has been partially blocked by a buildup of minerals in the water. This is a good illustration of how your arteries can look when too much cholesterol circulates in the blood.
Not all cholesterol is created equal. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol tends to be stickier and contribute to plaque build-up more than high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood ultimately cause your arteries to harden, stiffen and become blocked. This makes LDL cholesterol a major risk factor for heart disease.
WHAT CAUSES HIGH LDL LEVELS?
While genetics may play a role in whether or not you experience elevated LDL cholesterol levels in your blood, the primary culprit is lifestyle. You can influence your LDL levels to a great degree by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
RISK FACTORS FOR HIGH LDL LEVELS
These factors can contribute to an increased risk of experiencing elevated LDL cholesterol levels in the blood:
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension)
- Low HDL cholesterol levels
- Age: men over age 45, women over age 55
- A family history of early heart disease in men before age 55 or in women before age 65
- Diet (high in saturated fats and/or dietary cholesterol)
- Overweight or obese
- Sedentary lifestyle
LDL CHOLESTEROL BY THE NUMBERS
When you take a blood cholesterol test, you’ll receive results with several measurements and reference ranges. Here’s what they mean.
- Total cholesterol (measures the total amount of LDL and HDL cholesterol combined): Should be less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). Borderline high cholesterol falls into the 200-239 range. Total serum cholesterol above 240 mg/dL warrants treatment.
- LDL cholesterol: Should be less than 100 mg/dL. Borderline high: 130-159. High: 160-189. Very high: 190 and over.
- HDL cholesterol: Should be over 60 mg/dL. Low: 40-49 (men) or 50-59 (women). Very low: Below 40 (men) or 50 (women)
While you want low levels of LDL cholesterol circulating in your blood, the opposite is somewhat true for HDL cholesterol. For optimal health, you want your HDL cholesterol number to be higher, not lower.
HOW TO PREVENT AND TREAT HIGH LDL CHOLESTEROL
Everyone, regardless of age or family history, should be concerned about their cholesterol levels. Because high cholesterol is an asymptomatic condition (meaning you cannot tell if you have it or not), you should get a blood test periodically to check your cholesterol levels.
Your health care provider will determine the best course of treatment if your cholesterol level is elevated. You may need to take medication to reduce your risk of heart disease from high cholesterol.
Any cholesterol treatment program involves lifestyle modification. These are steps you can take on your own to help bring down your LDL cholesterol numbers:
- Stop smoking today. Your health care provider can help you quit smoking.
- Diet. Eat a diet rich in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and high-quality proteins. Avoid eating fast food, fried foods, excessive amounts of fat and excessive amounts of dietary cholesterol (often found in red meats).
- Weight management. If you are overweight, you should work on losing those extra pounds.
- Get active. Sitting is not good for the human body. If you find the work “exercise” off-putting, think of it in terms of “play.” Find a physical activity you enjoy and then engage in it regularly. Some fun ways to incorporate fitness into your life include: dancing, gardening, playing with your kids, walking the dog, joining a recreational sports league, swimming, bicycling, nature hikes — the list is endless.
REDUCE YOUR LDL CHOLESTEROL TO REDUCE YOUR RISK OF HEART DISEASE
High LDL cholesterol numbers are a key predictor of a future heart attack or other cardiovascular event. You can take control of your heart health by acting now to reduce your LDL cholesterol and live a long, happy life.