You’ve probably been told to get your cholesterol numbers checked. But what exactly is cholesterol – and what should you be doing about it?
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance within the human body, and it’s vital to many bodily functions. It also exists in certain foods we eat, particularly those from animals – meat, dairy products and eggs.
Cholesterol is natural and necessary — you can’t live without it. Too much cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream can ultimately clog the insides of your arteries, leading to a heart attack, stroke or blockages in the arteries of your legs. When combined with other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and a family history of heart problems, it can set the stage for heart disease.
“Good” Cholesterol and “Bad” Cholesterol
Most people know in general that cholesterol is bad for them, and that it’s important to reduce your intake of salty foods, dairy and red meat. But discussions can become confusing when talking about the need to have high levels of “good” cholesterol in your system. Why are there two types of cholesterol and why should there be higher levels of one than the other?
By itself, cholesterol can’t dissolve in the blood. It moves through your body via two “packages” — high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. Both are necessary, but when in an imbalance can pose risks to heart health.
Normally, LDL — which composes most of the cholesterol in your body — carries cholesterol through your bloodstream, passing through the tiniest blood vessels. An excess of LDL can lead to a buildup of plaques within your arteries. HDL helps to remove excess cholesterol from your body by carrying “bad” cholesterol to your liver for elimination.
What Should My Cholesterol Level Be?
Cholesterol levels are measured through a simple blood sample. The current recommended levels of cholesterol in the blood are:
- Total blood cholesterol lower than 200 mg/dL.
- LDL cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL.
- HDL cholesterol greater than 60 mg/dL (the higher is better).
- Triglycerides should be under 150 mg/dL.
Your doctor may recommend different targets for you based on your age and other risk factors. For example, in patients who have already had a heart attack, many cardiologists recommend getting the LDL level in the blood below 70 mg/dL.
Stay on top of your heart health by having a lipid panel done to measure cholesterol levels by the age of 35. After that, you and your doctor can set a screening schedule based on your measurements, family history and other risk factors.