Cholesterol Levels Matter: Tips for Keeping Yours Normal
Today, most people are aware of the importance of normal cholesterol levels for cardiovascular health. However, many assume that it isn't an issue of concern until they've reached middle age or beyond, a misconception that can have serious effects on health and well-being. Levels of cholesterol and triglycerides frequently begin to rise much earlier in life, especially for individuals with a genetic predisposition to cholesterol problems. For that reason, it is important that cholesterol and triglyceride levels are tested early and often to ensure that problems are detected and addressed before they take a toll on overall health.
Cholesterol Levels and Your Health
Normal cholesterol levels are a topic that many people find confusing as physicians and health publications speak of total cholesterol, good cholesterol, bad cholesterol and triglycerides. So what exactly is the difference between them and how do they affect risk of cardiovascular problems, like heart disease and stroke?
Total cholesterol is a measurement of the total amount of HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. According to the American Heart Association, levels of total cholesterol lower than 200 mg/dL are healthy, while a level between 200 and 239 is borderline, and 240 mg/dL indicates increased cardiovascular risk.
LDL cholesterol is known as bad cholesterol because high levels of this type of cholesterol in the blood can lead to a slow, steady buildup of it on the inner walls of arteries. This buildup of cholesterol, together with other substances in the blood, can form plaque on artery walls, a condition called atherosclerosis, narrowing the arteries and reducing their flexibility. Narrow, hardened arteries can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels and are susceptible to blockage by blood clots, which can result in heart attack or stroke. Less than 100 md/dL is considered an optimal level of LDL cholesterol, 100 to 129 is fairly good, 130 to 159 is borderline high, 160 to 189 is high and 190 mg/dL and above is very high.
HDL Cholesterol, known as good cholesterol, is thought to be protective against heart disease when it is present in the blood at high levels, slowing the buildup of arterial plaque. Optimal levels of HDL are 60 mg/dL and above, while levels less than 40 mg/dL in men and lower than 50 mg/dL in women are considered a major risk factor for heart disease.
Triglycerides are fats, made by the body, that circulate in the blood. Elevated levels are considered indicative of unhealthy cholesterol levels and are considered a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Triglyceride levels of150 mg/dL or higher are cause for concern.
What are the Best Ways to Maintain Healthy Cholesterol Levels?
The first step in maintaining normal cholesterol levels is knowing where you stand. The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 20 undergo a fasting lipid panel, which is a blood test, every 5 years to assess cholesterol and triglyceride levels. People with borderline or high cholesterol and triglyceride numbers should be tested more frequently, at least once annually.
If your cholesterol has begun to creep towards unhealthy levels, you can reduce your risk of cholesterol-related health problems by addressing a number of lifestyle factors. Among the most important of these are:
- Diet – A healthy diet can help keep cholesterol in check. Limit foods containing saturated fats, trans-fats and cholesterol, which can lead to high bad cholesterol, and reduce consumption of alcohol, sugars and other carbohydrates, which can increase triglycerides and lower good cholesterol. Since food labels can be confusing, consulting a dietitian for help in formulating a healthy eating plan may be wise.
- Weight Control – Being overweight raises levels of both bad cholesterol and triglycerides, so keeping your weight within a healthy range is essential to maintaining normal cholesterol levels. According to the CDC, a body-mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 is ideal.
- Don't Smoke – Smoking, aside from its many other detrimental health effects, has been shown to lower levels of good cholesterol, reducing protection against atherosclerosis, heart disease, hypertension and stroke. Secondhand smoke can have the same effects, so avoid exposure to other people's cigarette smoke as well.
- Stay Active – A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for cholesterol problems. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily can significantly reduce that risk, helping to maintain normal cholesterol levels.
Individuals with a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol may see levels rise despite a healthy diet and lifestyle. For that reason, people with a family history of cholesterol problems should be especially vigilant about regular cholesterol testing.
If lifestyle changes alone are not enough to maintain normal cholesterol levels, there medications that your physician can prescribe to help. However, it is important to remember that these medications are most effective when used in conjunction with, rather than instead of, a healthy diet and lifestyle.