Our bodies need cholesterol — a fatlike, waxy substance in the blood — to function normally and produce important chemicals, including hormones, vitamin D, and the acids that help us digest fat.
But too much cholesterol in the blood can build up and clog arteries, keeping your heart from getting the blood it needs. The higher your cholesterol level, the greater your risk for heart disease — the No. 1 killer of American women and men.
Before we get to the numbers, however, it is important to understand the two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol, causes cholesterol to build up in the blood stream. This can lead to plaque deposits in the arteries and possible clots, making it difficult for blood to travel throughout the body. The “good” cholesterol, HDL, helps remove the “bad” cholesterol from the arteries, taking it back to the liver to be broken down and passed.
To find out your cholesterol levels, your doctor or other health professional can administer a simple blood test. You’ll want a total cholesterol of less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Generally, the lower the LDL number, the better. Your LDL should be less than 100. Since HDL helps protect against heart disease, higher numbers are better. Aim for an HDL between 40 and 59 (even higher is better), as HDL levels below 40 increase the risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, some factors affecting your cholesterol levels are out of your control. As you get older, for example, your cholesterol naturally rises. Before menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age, but after menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise. High blood cholesterol can also run in families. Your genes affect how fast you make cholesterol and remove it from the blood.
However, there are things you can control. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL. Try to be physically active for at least 30–60 minutes on most or all days of the week. Manage your weight by eating a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol. Not smoking can also improve your cholesterol numbers.
It’s a good idea to have your blood cholesterol measured at least once every five years after the age of 20. Learn your numbers. Then talk to your doctor about steps to alter your diet, lose weight, or get more physically active to lower your blood cholesterol and stay healthy.