Cholesterol – the waxy substance found in your blood and produced naturally by your liver– is essential to building healthy cells.
But high levels of the substance can lead to fatty deposits and blockages that make it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries.
Over time, this reduced blood flow can cause damage throughout your body, and the longer it goes undetected and untreated, the more damage will be done.
Yet once diagnosed, high cholesterol can usually be managed through lifestyle changes, medication, or a combination of both.
A Silent Disease
High cholesterol is considered a silent disease because it does not cause any outward symptoms.
However as fatty deposits—also knowns as plaques—build up, it causes your arteries to narrow and harden, preventing blood from flowing freely and lessening the amount of oxygen and other nutrients delivered throughout your body.
High cholesterol increases your risk for peripheral artery disease and can cause memory problems, nervous system disruptions, and even digestive problems.
At the same time, pieces of plaque can break off suddenly and travel throughout the bloodstream, potentially causing a blockage or clot.
The longer high cholesterol goes untreated, the greater the risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Family History Significant Risk Factor
While high cholesterol is most commonly seen in adults 50 and older, an increasing number of people are developing the condition at a younger age.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 29 million American adults age 20 and older have high cholesterol, and an estimated 7 percent of children suffer from the condition.
In addition to age, family history is a significant risk factor for high cholesterol. If you have an immediate family member who has high cholesterol, you’re more likely to have it too.
Other risk factors include poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure.
If you are concerned about your risk for high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about screening.
The 70-70-70 Rule
A simple blood test can determine if your cholesterol levels are high, and testing should be performed on a regular basis at the recommendation of your primary care physician.
In general, the CDC recommends that most healthy people should have their cholesterol checked every 4-6 years and that children and adolescents should have their cholesterol checked at least once between ages 9-11 and again between ages 17-21.
The basic rule for healthy cholesterol is 70-70-70. You want your LDL, which is sometimes called bad cholesterol, under 70; your HDL or good cholesterol at 70 or higher, and your triglycerides (a type of fat) under 70.
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, there is a range of medications to help keep it within a healthy range and, as a result, help you maintain good cardiovascular health. Following a heart healthy lifestyle can also help keep cholesterol in check.
Tips to Stay Heart Healthy
The American Heart Association recommends the following tips to help manage cholesterol and stay heart healthy:
- Eat a heart healthy diet. From a dietary standpoint, the best way to lower your cholesterol is to reduce your intake of saturated fat and trans fat. Limit saturated fat to less than 6 percent of daily calories. Minimize trans fat consumption by reducing your intake of red meat and whole milk dairy as well as limiting fried food and cooking with healthy oils. Additionally, a heart healthy diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils.
- Become more physically active. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week is enough to lower both cholesterol and high blood pressure. Brisk walking, swimming, bicycling, and dancing are all considered moderate-intensity exercise.
- Quit smoking. Smoking and vaping lowers HDL, the good cholesterol. What’s more, in people who already have high cholesterol, smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease even more than it otherwise would.
- Lose weight. Being overweight or obese raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol. Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of excess weight can help improve cholesterol levels.
Visit the Princeton Health onDemand UStream channel at www.ustream.tv/princetonhealth where you can watch a pre-recorded video to learn more about the risks of long-term high cholesterol.
For more information or to find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Kathryn J. Robison, M.D., is board certified in internal medicine and a member of the medical staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.