Cholesterol often gets a bad name, and understandably so. Too much of it can lead to heart disease. Learn the difference between good and bad cholesterol, why “high cholesterol” is dangerous to your health, and what you can do to keep your cholesterol down.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found among the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. It’s made in the liver and found in certain foods, such as food from animals, like dairy products (whole milk), eggs and meat. The body actually needs cholesterol because it’s used to form cell membranes, some hormones and is needed for other functions. But a high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack.

Types of Cholesterol

  • The good: High density lipoproteins (HDL) helps the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood. The higher the level of HDL cholesterol, the better.
  • The bad: Low density lipoproteins (LDL) can cause buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries. The more LDL there is in the blood, the greater the risk of heart disease.

What factors affect cholesterol levels?

  • What you eat: Saturated fat and cholesterol found in many fried and packaged foods can increase cholesterol levels.
  • How much you weigh: Too much fat around the middle is a risk factor for heart disease, but it’s also a way to increase that “bad” cholesterol.
  • How active you are: Sitting on the couch certainly doesn’t’ help. Performing some kind of physical activity for 30 minutes or more on most days can lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
  • Your age and gender: As we get older, cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, however, women’s LDL levels tend to rise. Diabetes: Mismanagement of your diabetes can increase cholesterol levels. Get a hold of your diabetes, and the cholesterol levels will fall.

How does cholesterol lead to heart disease?
When cholesterol is too high, plaque (a thick, hard deposit) may form in the body’s arteries narrowing the space for blood to flow to the heart. Over time, this buildup causes a hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by total blockage of a coronary artery, the result is a heart attack. This is usually due to a sudden closure from a blood clot forming on top of a previous narrowing.

How do you lower your cholesterol?
It only takes a few simple lifestyle changes to get your cholesterol level under control.

  • First, cut back or avoid foods that are high in saturated fat and calories. You know the ones: Fried foods, meals cooked in extra creamy sauces, processed foods, etc.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three to four days a week. Doing so increases HDL cholesterol in some, helps shed weight and control high blood pressure.
  • Give up the cigarettes. Smoking lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Quit smoking to keep your HDLs higher.
  • Take medication. In some cases, medicine is necessary to help lower cholesterol.
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