Off the top of your head, can you recite your total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL numbers? During American Heart Month this February, consider how well you know your health stats and risks and how you use that information to make healthy decisions. Taking steps to improve your numbers may be critical in reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat‐like substance that our bodies need and produce naturally. We also get cholesterol from foods (animal products only) that we may eat. Too much cholesterol is dangerous-many people inherit genes from their mother, father, or even grandparents that cause their bodies to make more than they need. Eating saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol also increases how much you have of this substance. Excess cholesterol in the bloodstream is deposited in arteries, where it contributes to the narrowing and blockages that may cause heart disease.

A simple blood test called a fasting lipoprotein profile will show the following four results:

  1. Total cholesterol – made up of low density (LDL), high density (HDL), and very low density (VLDL) lipoproteins
  2. LDL (“bad”) cholesterol – too much LDL can clog arteries
  3. HDL (“good”) cholesterol – helps keep LDL cholesterol from building up in the arteries
  4. Triglycerides – another form of fat in your blood. High triglycerides are a lifestyle‐related risk factor for heart disease; however, underlying diseases or genetic disorders can be the cause.

The following chart will help you understand what the different numbers for each result mean:

Screening Desirable Borderline Associated with higher risk
Total Cholesterol >200 200-239 239 or more
HDL Cholesterol 40 or more Less than 40
LDL Cholesterol >130 130-159 160 or more
Triglycerides T>150 150-199 200 or more

Note: All levels in units of mg/dL

Some tips for managing cholesterol are:

  • Know your numbers! High cholesterol may not produce symptoms at all or until significant damage has been done-and you can take steps to prevent and reduce the damage.
  • Discuss your personal risks for heart disease, including your family health history, with your physician and learn how you can improve your heart health.
  • Take the time to read food labels: choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
  • To improve your heart health and cholesterol levels, do not use tobacco, maintain a healthy weight and get at least 30‐60 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week.

Become your own “health advocate” by knowing what your numbers are and creating an action plan. Schedule an annual physical with your doctor.

Sources: Washington and Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Centers. For additional information, consult your physician.