1 in 3 Americans die from heart disease, making it the leading cause of death in the United States. High cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, affects more than 7 in 10 adults. Our simple guide helps you understand how cholesterol works, the types of cholesterol and how to manage your levels so you can lower your risk and live healthier.

How Cholesterol Works

Cholesterol is the waxy substance in your body responsible for making hormones, vitamin D and digesting food. “When cholesterol levels are too high in your blood, it turns into a plaque-like substance that sticks to the walls of your blood vessels,” says Daisy F. Lazarous, MD, a cardiovascular specialist with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group. “Too much buildup in your blood vessels often leads to heart disease, strokes and other serious illnesses.”

Types of Cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol – LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol).

  • LDL: Too much LDL is bad for your health. “LDL combines with other substances in your blood vessels to form plaque,” said Dr. Lazarous. “Eating unhealthy foods, being overweight and physical inactivity raises your LDL levels.” If high cholesterol runs in your family, you are also at risk of developing high LDL levels.
  • HDL: Unlike LDL, high levels of HDL is good for your heart health. “HDL carries any bad cholesterol in your blood to your liver,” said Dr. Lazarous. “Your liver then removes the bad cholesterol from your body.” You can raise your HDL by regularly doing cardio exercise, eating healthy unsaturated fats and managing your weight.

Tips on Managing your Cholesterol Levels

Only 1 in 3 adults with high LDL cholesterol are effectively managing their condition. Here are some tips you can follow to help keep your levels within a healthy range:

Check your Numbers

You can find out your cholesterol levels by taking a simple lipid panel blood test after an initial visit with your primary care doctor. Most physicians recommend adults keep their LDL levels under 100 mg/dL and HDL levels over 40 mg/dL. “Even if you are at average risk for heart disease, I recommend checking your levels once a year,” said Dr. Lazarous.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Choosing foods high in fiber and unsaturated fats can help raise your HDL and lower your LDL levels. Low-fat dairy and naturally sweet foods are also good options. Examples of low-cholesterol, heart-healthy foods are oatmeal, beans, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, olive oil and nuts. Avoid foods that contain processed meats and added sugars, such as sweet desserts and lunch meat.

Get Active

Leading a physically active lifestyle will also help to lower your LDL and increase your HDL. “Doing 40 minutes of brisk walking, running or other cardio exercises three to five times a week is ideal,” said Dr. Lazarous. “You can also increase the amount of physical activity you do in your everyday life by taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking a little farther to your car.”

Quit Smoking

Smoking damages your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease. If you smoke, your doctor can help you develop a plan to quit.

Watch for Serious Conditions

Unfortunately, high cholesterol generally has no symptoms until more serious complications occur. If you have high cholesterol, be on the lookout for these signs that could indicate a more serious medical emergency and call 9-1-1 immediately:

  • Mild or severe chest pain
  • Arm pain
  • Numbness or coldness in your limbs
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
Take Medicines as Directed

Cholesterol medicine can help lower your LDL levels and your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. “Carefully follow any instructions your doctor gives you on taking cholesterol medicine and monitor your response to treatment,” said Dr. Lazarous. “If a medicine is not working well with your body, your doctor can help you find alternatives.”

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Library of Medicine, American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health

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