Cholesterol basics

A close-up on cholesterol information

Do you know the ins and outs of cholesterol? How about the highs and lows? Read on for information that can help you learn more about this threat to heart health.  

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance your body needs — and your liver makes most of what you need. Some people inherit a tendency to produce too much.

You might also raise your levels of unhealthy types when you eat certain foods — such as fatty cuts of meat, full-fat dairy and other high-fat animal products.

Why it matters

If your cholesterol levels aren’t what they should be, it may be a serious health risk. They can contribute to plaque buildup in your arteries. This can cause an artery to narrow or become clogged — which could trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Here are two types of cholesterol that play a role in that risk:

The bad: low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. Too much LDL is a plaque builder — and a primary culprit in clogged and damaged arteries.

The good: high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. This type works a bit like a trash collector. As it travels through your bloodstream, it gathers up other bits of cholesterol — and takes them to your liver for disposal.

Putting yourself to the test

Ask your doctor when and how often you should have your cholesterol tested. It may depend on your age — and whether you have other risk factors. These include a family history of heart attack and stroke, as well as high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes.

The blood test for cholesterol is called a lipoprotein panel. Your results will include numbers for your:

  • LDL and HDL levels.
  • Total cholesterol — this number is based in part on your LDL and HDL.
  • Triglycerides — another form of fat found in the blood. High triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease.

Your doctor will evaluate your results in context with other risks you may have.

If your cholesterol levels are not in a healthy range, don’t ignore this warning. Catching this early — and improving your numbers — can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack and stroke.