The trick to cholesterol is balance and flow.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance in your blood. We need some “good” high-density lipoprotein HDL cholesterol to keep our bodies functioning normally. HDL carries cholesterol away from cells to the liver, where it can be broken down and expelled from the body. It helps build up cells, produce vitamin D and develop a range of hormones. “Bad” low-density lipoprotein LDL cholesterol can build plaque on your artery walls and clog them up, potentially leading to heart disease.
Both HDL and LDL are considered blood lipids, which are fatty substances in the blood. There are a total of five main types of lipids. 80 percent of cholesterol is produced in the liver, with the remaining 20 percent coming from the foods you eat. High blood levels of LDL cholesterol or triglyceride fats (or both) mean you have a lipid disorder and put you at high risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Desirable “total” cholesterol levels (meaning HDL, LDL and Triglycerides combined) should be less than 170 mg/dL for adults. Unfortunately, there are more than 35 million Americans 20 years of age or older with high cholesterol levels of 240 mg/dL or more, placing them at a high risk of heart disease. Overall, 102 million Americans 20 years of age or older have cholesterol levels that are above 200 mg/dL.
To prevent dangerous cholesterol levels, it is important to understand the risks of high cholesterol and take preventive measures to maintain a healthy cholesterol level.
High-Risk Groups and Symptoms
There are many causes of high cholesterol, with certain groups being more at risk than others.
High cholesterol can be inherited, and this is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). It is important to check your cholesterol levels if there is a history of high cholesterol in the family, because it can result in premature atherosclerotic heart disease.
Men are more likely to have higher cholesterol levels than women, because the female sex hormone estrogen helps increase beneficial HDL cholesterol. For this reason, women may have especially good cholesterol during their childbearing years, which may not be the case later on in their lives.
Ethnicity may also be a factor in a person’s risk of high cholesterol and developing heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology and 10 other organizations. For instance, South Asians living in the U.S. are generally at risk of having low “good” HDL cholesterol levels. The studies show that people from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are at greater risk than the general American population.
Unhealthy lifestyle choices are also to blame for high cholesterol. These choices include poor diet (especially made up of too much saturated fat in meat, eggs, dairy and processed foods), lack of exercise, smoking (active and passive), as well as excess weight (particularly around your waist) and age. An underactive thyroid, liver or kidney disease and type 2 diabetes can increase the risk, as can certain medications.
There are no obvious symptoms for high cholesterol but there are indicators, such as the appearance of chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, breath shortness, numbness/coldness in your extremities and pain in the neck, jaw, upper abdomen or back. The best way to find out if you have cholesterol is to have a blood test.
Testing the Level of Your Cholesterol
A cholesterol test can determine the risk posed by the build-up of arterial plaques, which can lead to blocked arteries (atherosclerosis). A blood test, known as a blood panel or lipid profile, can measure the cholesterol and triglycerides amounts in your blood.
Before the test, the patient is required to fast from all food and liquids, apart from water, for at least nine hours.
Usually taken in the morning, blood is drawn from your arm to measure total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and Triglycerides. Advanced tests can give more details, breaking down the size and shapes of LDL cholesterol levels and giving the LDL particle number. Lab tests are accurate and return results within a day or two.
If you want a faster result but don’t mind pricking a finger, home cholesterol testing kits are available. The makers of these kits state that users can have faster results, but faster isn’t always better. Sometimes people make the mistake of squeezing the blood from the finger to collect the sample, and this can affect results.
When selecting an at-home kit, it is important to ensure that the test has been approved by the Cholesterol Reference Method Laboratory Network, which works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Appropriate tests will be labelled as “CDC-certified”. The home test requires the patient to have fasted for 12 hours. Once done, depending on the kit, the tests will either need to be mailed to a lab or you may be able to get the results at home.
Home tests give a measure of total cholesterol only. However, this isn’t enough to have a succinct overview of cardiovascular health. Some of these may be tricky to understand without a doctor and others aren’t accurate enough to pinpoint the real risks.
For this reason, it is much better to get a lab test with a doctor.
How often should you get your cholesterol levels checked?
The American Heart Association does not recommend routine blood cholesterol screenings for all children and teenagers. The CDC recommends that children and adolescents get their cholesterol tested between the ages of 9 and 11, and again between the ages of 17 and 21.
All healthy adults 20 years or older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, according to the American Heart Association and the CDC.
After the age of 40, your health care provider will want to calculate your 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease.
People who are diabetic, have heart disease or a family history of high cholesterol should get tested more regularly than others. A health care professional can give helpful advice about how often different people in risk groups should be tested.
Bearing in mind that there are no obvious symptoms, it is important for someone to get tested in order to be able to make changes to lower their cholesterol levels. This can be done by stopping bad habits, such as smoking, improving your diet and a little bit of exercise.