September is Cholesterol Education Month, a time when we call special attention to the health risks of having high cholesterol. We sat down with two cardiologists from Adventist HealthCare to tell give us the skinny on why cholesterol matters for our health.

Geetha F. Pinto, MD, is a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, and Michael Chen, MD, is an interventional cardiologist and director of the Catheterization Lab at Adventist HealthCare Washington Adventist Hospital.

Michael Chen, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Adventist HealthCare Washington Adventist Hospital.

Michael Chen, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Adventist HealthCare Washington Adventist Hospital.

Why is maintaining a healthy cholesterol important?

Dr. Pinto: Cholesterol is very important for your overall health and wellness. Your body needs it to produce hormones and regulate a healthy body. But in excess, the bad cholesterol can deposit itself in arteries and cause plaque to build up.

Which cholesterol is the “bad” one?

Dr. Chen: That would be low-density lipoprotein (LDL). High LDL levels have been associated with heart attack, heart disease and stroke.

What causes high cholesterol?

Dr. Chen: Genetics certainly plays a role. Additionally, lifestyle choices like diet and exercise, can affect cholesterol levels.

Dr. Pinto: Yes, a diet high in carbohydrates and fat can lead to high cholesterol.

Geetha Pinto, MD, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center

Geetha Pinto, MD, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center

How often should you have your cholesterol checked and how is that done?

Dr. Pinto: Generally, healthy men should begin getting their cholesterol checked at least annually by age 35 and healthy women, around age 45. However, you might have to start getting your cholesterol checked earlier and have more frequents tests if you have heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.

Dr. Chen: Your cholesterol is checked using a blood test that you have to fast before, called a fasting lipid panel.

What is considered a “healthy” cholesterol level?

Dr. Pinto: It usually depends on one’s risk factors. For young men and women without any risk factors, usually a total cholesterol of <200 mg/dL and a “bad cholesterol” or LDL level of less than 160 mg/dL is acceptable. For those at a higher risk, the recommended LDL level is <100 mg/dL, with levels as low as 70 mg/dL recommended for people with heart disease, stroke and even diabetes.

Drs. Chen and Pinto offer these tips for a heart healthy cholesterol.

  • Limit carbs, sugar and fat in your diet.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruit
  • Exercise
  • Minimize red meat consumption
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Do not smoke

Want to learn your heart age? Take our fast, free online heart risk quiz.