Cholesterol is probably one of the most common words you hear when it comes to heart disease, what and what not to eat, and general health and well-being. And while the more one hears about something, the easier it can be to become desensitized to it, it’s important to stay aware of the critical effect that cholesterol can have on your overall health – and especially your heart.
While your body certainly needs cholesterol to make hormones and digest fatty foods, high levels of it become a case of "too much of a good thing."
"Too much cholesterol can cause a build-up of deposits in your arteries, which can lead to heart disease and stroke – two of the leading causes of death in the U.S.," says Muhammad Khan, MD, Cardiologist.
It’s a problem that has become all too common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 95 million adults (20 or older) in the U.S. have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL – placing them above healthy levels – and nearly 29 million American adults have total levels higher than 240 mg/dL.
And unfortunately, high cholesterol usually doesn’t make its presence known.
"High cholesterol can be particularly challenging from an awareness standpoint because it doesn’t typically come with symptoms. You could have high cholesterol and be completely unaware of it," Khan warns. "The good news is that your primary care provider can perform a simple blood test to determine your cholesterol levels and then work with you to bring those levels down, if necessary, and help reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke."
Screening should begin early in life (more than one in five children ages six to 19 have unhealthy levels of cholesterol), and the general recommendation is to be screened every four to six years in adulthood.
Frequency and the timing of your first screening can vary depending on age, risk factors and family medical history, so it’s important to speak with your primary care provider about the proper timing and frequency of screening for you and your family.
More good news: high cholesterol is treatable. While some patients may be prescribed medication to combat their cholesterol levels, others can make simple lifestyle changes to help lower their cholesterol and thereby reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke, including:
Eating a healthy diet by avoiding foods high in saturated and trans fats, and focusing on consuming lean fish, chicken, vegetables and grains that provide high fiber.
Maintaining a regular routine of physical activity by following the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation of two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week (children and youth should have one hour of activity each day).
Maintaining a healthy weight that’s right for you. You can help determine your healthy weight by measuring your body mass index, talking to your doctor about weight management and abiding by a healthy food and fitness plan.
Steering clear of tobacco.
Limiting your alcohol intake.
"If you don’t know your cholesterol levels or are concerned that they could be too high, it’s important to have them tested and then discuss your numbers with your primary care provider," Khan said. "Knowing your numbers is the first step to developing a plan to lower them and reducing your risk for serious health issues down the road."