It's National Cholesterol Education Month. Do you know the basics about how unhealthy cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease?
"About a third of American adults have unhealthy cholesterol levels," said Zubair Khan, M.D., FACC, a board-certified cardiologist at Lake Regional Heart and Vascular. "High cholesterol puts people at higher risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. All adults need to know their cholesterol levels, as well as what they can do to take control of their heart health."
These five must-know facts about cholesterol are a good place to start.
1. Your body needs cholesterol. This waxy substance is found in every cell in the body and aids in many vital functions, including digestion and in hormone and vitamin D production.
Cholesterol can cause problems when your body has too much of it, though. It can build up in arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke.
2. There are good and bad types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, are the bad cholesterol. The higher the level of LDL in your blood, the higher your risk of heart disease.
HDL, or high-density lipoproteins, are known as the good cholesterol. HDL is beneficial because it carries cholesterol from other parts of the body to the liver, where it can be removed. Higher levels of HDL mean you have a lower chance of getting heart disease.
3. Testing is the only way to know if your cholesterol levels are within a healthy range. There are no signs or symptoms that let you know if your cholesterol levels aren't what they should be. But a simple blood test can let you know where you stand.
4. Even young people should keep tabs on their cholesterol levels. Unhealthy cholesterol isn't a problem only among older adults. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 years and older have their cholesterol levels checked at least every four to six years.
And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teens have their cholesterol tested once between the ages of 9 and 11 and again between the ages of 17 and 21.
5. Diet matters. To help control your cholesterol, cut down on foods high in saturated and trans fats, which include fatty meats, baked goods (such as cookies, crackers and cakes), whole-milk dairy products and solid fats, such as butter. You should also get plenty of exercise, reach and maintain a healthy weight, and not smoke.
Your doctor also may recommend medications to help you achieve optimal cholesterol levels.
"Gaining control over your cholesterol levels will not only decrease your risk for heart disease but also lead to better quality of life and overall health," Dr. Khan said.
Know Your Numbers
High cholesterol has no symptoms, so many people don't know that their cholesterol is too high. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to check your levels. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults at average risk get their cholesterol checked every five years.
Desirable Cholesterol Levels
Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL ("bad" cholesterol): Less than 100 mg/dL
HDL ("good" cholesterol): 60 mg/dL or higher
Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL