Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found naturally in cells all over the body. The body – specifically the liver – produces as much cholesterol as needed to be carried through the bloodstream.
Cholesterol can also be found in foods, such as meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. People who eat animal products may have more cholesterol in their body at any given time. This happens because when a diet is high in fat and trans fats, the liver increases cholesterol levels.
The level of cholesterol in the body greatly affects heart health.
During a routine physical or blood work, a doctor may suggest measuring cholesterol levels. This measurement indicates whether or not the body is over- or under-producing cholesterol. The result may mean making necessary dietary changes or taking prescribed medication.
There are three different types of cholesterol that can be found in the body. The cholesterol is carried in cells called lipoproteins, which are made up of fats and proteins.
The three kinds of cholesterol are low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high-density lipoproteins (HDL), and very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL).
All three types of cholesterol contain triglycerides, although about half of VLDL is made up of triglycerides.
LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because it can build up on the walls of the arteries, causing heart disease and other serious issues. These cholesterol blockages can also detach from artery walls and cause blood clots.
The optimal LDL cholesterol level is less than 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Between 100-129 mg/dL is considered OK, borderline high is 130-159 mg/dL, high is 160-189 mg/dL, and 190 mg/dL is very high.
HDL is considered “good” cholesterol and helps move bad cholesterol out of the blood stream, which helps to deter heart disease.
The optimal HDL cholesterol level is 60 mg/dL or more. Less than 40 mg/dL is too low.
VLDL represents the fats that are carried in the blood from food we eat plus excess calories that are converted into triglycerides. Like LDL, VLDL is associated with the build up of plaque in the arteries and increases the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack, or stroke. It is an estimate of the percentage of triglycerides found in the body.
The optimal VLDL level is less than 30 mg/dL.
Recommended total cholesterol levels are as follows:
- Optimal: Less than 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L)
- Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L to 13.3 mmol/L)
- High: 240 mg/dL (13.3 mmol/L) or more
However, different countries have different guidelines. In South Africa, for example, health providers recommend keeping total cholesterol below 193.3 mg/dl (5 mmol/L).
When testing cholesterol levels in a standard blood test, a sample of blood will be drawn from the arm after a period of fasting.
A cholesterol level is determined by adding the HDL level, the LDL level, and 20 percent of the triglyceride level. These numbers will tell a doctor what a person’s risk is of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, artery diseases, and other ailments.
Women tend to have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men. This is due to the female sex hormone estrogen, which raises these levels. Estrogen levels are at their highest when women are of childbearing age. After menopause, estrogen levels fall, meaning that HDL levels are also likely to decline.
A report from the American Heart Association (AHA) in 2011, revealed that 41.8 percent of men aged over 20 had a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher, compared with 46.3 percent of women.
A total of 32.5 percent of men compared with 31.0 percent of women had LDL levels of 130 md/dL or lower. A total of 28.6 percent of men had HDL levels of less than 40 mg/dL compared with only 9.7 percent of women.
While cardiovascular disease is considered to be a disease that mainly affects older men, it remains the leading cause of death in women in the United States (U.S.) and worldwide. More women have died of heart disease than men every year since 1984.
Age also plays a role in the likelihood of developing heart disease. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute use these numbers to outline the percentage of people who have high cholesterol.
The percentages, which are by age and regardless of gender, are as follows:
- 20s: 22 percent
- 30s: 38 percent
- 40s: 50 percent
- 50s: 62 percent
Other factors that affect cholesterol levels include:
- Diet: Foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat and carbohydrates are known to increase cholesterol levels. Limiting these types of foods will help regulate and decrease blood cholesterol.
- Weight: There are many risks associated with being overweight or obese, such as increased triglycerides. Managing a healthy weight helps all factors of health including heart disease.
- Exercise: Being active for at least 30 minutes per day increases a person’s heart rate, helps maintain weight, and lowers LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
- Heredity: Unfortunately unchangeable, high cholesterol can run through families.
The AHA recommend that both men and women over the age of 20 have their cholesterol, as well as a blood panel, checked every 4 to 6 years.
Doctors can use this information to treat early conditions. They can even predict a 10-year or lifetime risk for heart attack or stroke. It’s important for people to get check-ups because high cholesterol does not have symptoms.
If a blood analysis is done and high levels of cholesterol are found, a doctor can help make a plan to reduce the risks. This plan may include lifestyle changes, such as exercise, diet, prescription medication, and nutrition advice.
Losing weight and exercising regularly, avoiding sugary food and alcohol, and taking cholesterol-lowering medication may help.
High cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and coronary disease. The risk is increased by obesity and poor diet.
Heart disease is a very serious issue and is the leading cause of death in the U.S. While it cannot be “cured,” a person can manage and avoid heart disease by making sure they only eat trans and saturated fats on rare occasions.