According to the Center for Disease Control, 73.5 million adults in the United States struggle with high cholesterol. Less than half of those adults, however, report getting treatment.
Because of its prevalence in our communities, it is important to know what cholesterol is, when you should be checking it and how to treat or prevent dangerous cholesterol levels.
Our bodies do need cholesterol to function properly. The waxy, fat-like substance produces hormones, vitamin D and the bile acids that help us digest fat.
However, we only need a limited amount, and too much cholesterol can cause health problems such as heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States.
Too much cholesterol will build up and form a thick, hard substance – called plaque – in your arteries. Over time, this buildup causes atherosclerosis, commonly known as hardening of the arteries.
As plaque builds up on artery walls, it narrows the space through which blood can flow, decreasing the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows to the heart. This can cause chest pain or angina.
If the blood supplying part of the heart with oxygen is completely blocked, you will have a heart attack.
While adults are more prone to having unhealthy levels of cholesterol, anyone – including children – could be at risk. Treating cholesterol levels is important for everyone, no matter the age.
The good news is you can lower your cholesterol and help reduce your risk.
To manage your cholesterol, you will first need to find out your LDL and HDL cholesterol numbers. LDL is the "bad" cholesterol that causes blockages, and HDL is the "good" cholesterol that helps remove blockages from the blood vessels.
All adults are advised to have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years, and more frequently in the presence of risk factors such as co-existing medical conditions and family history. Once you know your numbers, the best management strategy is to lower your bad/LDL cholesterol and raise your good/HDL cholesterol.
Progress toward both goals can be made through lifestyle changes: Eating a heart-healthy diet, losing weight, getting more exercise and quitting smoking can improve overall cholesterol. Aim for 30 minutes of any form of aerobic exercise five times per week. To lose weight, aim for at least 60 minutes.
Any activity that can get your heart pumping will help lower your risk of heart disease.
If you are overweight, dropping those extra pounds can significantly lower your cholesterol level. Even losing just five to ten pounds can improve your numbers.
Choose foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. It is also essential to cut your intake of saturated fats and reach for monounsaturated fats, or good fats, instead. Good fats will help lower your bad/LDL cholesterol and raise your good/HDL cholesterol.
If lifestyle changes are not enough, however, your doctor may prescribe medication called statins to help lower your cholesterol.
Ask your physician about your cholesterol levels and ways you can reduce your risk for heart disease. For more information, visit CarilionClinic.org.
Jeremy A. Llavore, M.D., is a Carilion Clinic Family Medicine physician based in Boones Mill, Va. Learn more about where Dr. Llavore went to medical school and where you can find him when he's not caring for patients.