Research shows that you can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by lowering the amount of cholesterol in your blood. The Mayo Clinic estimates that just a 10% reduction in U.S. cholesterol levels would result in a 30% decline in heart disease.
What is cholesterol? Your liver naturally produces cholesterol: a type of fat vital to cell production. High cholesterol occurs when your body produces too much cholesterol, or is unable to shed excess cholesterol received from outside sources such as food.
How do you know if you have high cholesterol? Unfortunately, no outward signs or symptoms will help you detect high cholesterol. That's why it's important to be tested on an annual basis. A simple test is to measure the total milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). With this test, doctors look for cholesterol levels of 200 or less, and consider anyone with a score of 240 or higher to be "at risk."
More-sophisticated tests are also available, designed to measure and compare three specific types of cholesterol:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This "bad" cholesterol is primarily responsible for creating fatty deposits that clog your arteries.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This "good" cholesterol helps clear your arteries and helps counteract the effects of LDL cholesterol.
Triglycerides: Another type of fat found in your blood, triglycerides operate much like LDL and should be kept as low as possible.
What causes high cholesterol? A number of factors can influence your cholesterol level--for better or for worse. Here are a few of the key contributors:
Diet: To keep your cholesterol under control, doctors recommend you limit your fat intake to 30% of your total daily calories.
Exercise: To keep your weight and cholesterol levels under control, doctors recommend at least 30-45 minutes of exercise, three days a week.
General Health: People who smoke, are overweight, or have low thyroid function, diabetes or lipid disorders may have high cholesterol and should be checked on a more regular basis.
Age: From age 20 to 50, men usually experience a steady increase in cholesterol levels. Women, on the other hand, typically enjoy lower cholesterol levels until menopause, and then quickly catch up.
The good news: many of the factors known to cause high cholesterol are preventable. With a few simple changes in lifestyle, most people can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease or stroke. For more information, please consult with your physician or visit the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) of the National Institutes of Health at www.nhlbi.nih.gov