Cholesterol 101

— Written By Lethia Lee and last updated by Cindy Nance

What is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a kind of fat your body makes. You also get it from foods that come from animals, such as beef, milk and dairy foods, eggs, chicken, and fish. Your body needs some cholesterol, but when you have too much, it can build up in your blood vessels called arteries. This problem is called atherosclerosis. It is the starting point for most heart and blood flow problems, including heart attacks and strokes.

A cholesterol test is a blood test that is used to check your cholesterol levels. Your test will show several results: Total cholesterol –  this is the sum of all of the different types of cholesterol in the blood. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) which is the bad cholesterol. High LDL can raise your risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is the good cholesterol. High HDL is linked with a lower risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

So how is your activity level? Not exercising may raise triglycerides and lower HDL (good cholesterol). After you reach age 20, your cholesterol starts to rise. In men, cholesterol levels usually level off after age 50. In women, cholesterol levels stay fairly low until menopause. After that, they rise to about the same level as in men.

Too much cholesterol in your body can lead to all kinds of health issues. According to the National Heart, Lung, and blood institute, people who have high blood cholesterol have a greater chance of getting coronary heart disease. The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood the greater your chance is of getting heart disease.

Your family history contributes a great deal of information to the disease of high cholesterol. A lipid disorder also can cause high cholesterol. This rare problem runs in families. Cigarette Smoking can lower your HDL or good cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is similar to fat. Some foods, like saturated fats, prompt your body to make more cholesterol than it needs. Cholesterol travels through your blood in packets of protein and fat. These packets are called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins are also called LDL or bad cholesterol. These stick to your artery walls, which makes it harder for your circulatory system to work. High density lipoproteins are also called HDL or good cholesterol. These move cholesterols from your bloodstream to your liver, where it can be processed out of your body.

Questions to ask your doctor:

  • What is my risk for heart attack and stroke?
  • Should I do something to help lower my risk?
  • What lifestyle changes can help me stay healthy? How can I make changes that I will like?
  • Should I think about taking medicine?

For more information, contact Lethia Lee, EFNEP Assistant with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at 910-592-7161.