High cholesterol: What you need to know

September 7, 2015 Providence Health Team

When it comes to high cholesterol, what you can’t see can hurt you.

High cholesterol has no symptoms, so many people may not know if they are at risk. But approximately 1 in every 6 adults — that’s 17 percent of the U.S. adult population — has high blood cholesterol.

Where cholesterol comes from

Your body makes cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance that travels through your bloodstream. Cholesterol has important functions, including helping make hormones, vitamin D and substances to help you digest some foods.

Cholesterol also is in some of the food we eat, including fatty meats, shrimp and dairy products.

If you have high blood cholesterol, over time it can harden and clog your arteries. This in turn can put you at risk of developing heart disease, the top killer of women and men in the United States. In fact, people with high cholesterol have about twice the risk as others of having heart disease.

You can’t control all of your risks factors for high cholesterol. For instance, cholesterol levels tend to go up as we age, and high cholesterol can run in families. But there are lifestyle factors we can control.

When to get tested

The federal Centers for Disease Control says cholesterol is a health indicator that needs to be monitored just like blood pressure. Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years, according to the CDC. All children and adolescents should have their cholesterol checked at least once between the ages of 9 and 11, and again between 17 and 21.

A simple blood test called a lipid profile can tell you your cholesterol levels. Here’s what the test will measure:

  • Low-density lipoproteins: This is called “bad” cholesterol and commonly referred to as LDL. LDL cholesterol makes up the majority of the body’s cholesterol, and high levels can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
  • High-density lipoproteins: This is called “good” cholesterol and referred to as HDL. Scientists believe that HDL cholesterol absorbs bad cholesterol and carries it to the liver, where it is flushed from the body.
  • Triglycerides: This is a different type of fat that doctors usually check as part of a cholesterol test. High levels of triglycerides can raise the risk of heart disease.

Here are the cholesterol and triglyceride levels you want to aim for:

  • Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
  • LDL, or “bad” cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/dL
  • HDL, or “good” cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or higher
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

If your cholesterol is high, lifestyle changes may be enough to lower it. If not, medicine could be necessary. Your age, gender and blood pressure could all factor into a decision.

Talk to your health care provider about what your numbers mean for you.

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