Cholesterol: The good, the bad and the big picture

Learn how different types of cholesterol affect your heart’s health

Lower your cholesterol. That’s commonly heard advice. But it isn’t the whole story.

It’s true that certain types of cholesterol are harmful. So you want low levels of them in your blood. But one type is actually good for you — so you want more of it, not less.

It can be a bit confusing. 

Read on to get answers on what these highs and lows are all about.

Q. What is cholesterol exactly?

A. It’s a waxy, fatlike substance that’s found in all cells of the body. Your liver makes most of what you need. Your body uses it to help make hormones and vitamin D, for instance.

But you can have too much cholesterol in your blood. Certain foods, such as fatty meats, can contribute to this. High levels can also run in some families.

Q. Why does it matter?

A. Unhealthy cholesterol levels can cause plaque to build up inside arteries. This reduces blood flow — and raises the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Q. What’s the “bad” type?  

A. That’s your LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. It contributes to plaque deposits.

Helpful hint: Remember “L for low.” You want a low level of LDL cholesterol.

Q. What’s the “good” type? 

A. That’s your HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. It helps sweep LDL from your arteries. It carries it back to your liver — where it can be broken down and removed from the body.

Helpful hint: Remember “H for high.” You want a higher level of HDL cholesterol.

Q. Are there symptoms of unhealthy cholesterol levels?

A. By itself, the condition usually has no signs or symptoms. Having your blood tested is the only way to know if your levels are OK. Ask your doctor when and how often you should be screened.*

Q. What can a cholesterol test show?

A. A blood test called a lipoprotein panel will show your numbers for:

  • LDL and HDL
  • Total cholesterol
  • Triglycerides — a type of blood fat

Being tested soon? Keep this handy at-a-glance guide to the ups and downs of cholesterolOpens a new window.

Q. How can I improve my cholesterol levels?

A. If your cholesterol levels aren’t in a healthy range, talk with your doctor about what steps are right for you. Changes that have been shown to help include:

  • Choose healthy foods, such as veggies, fruit and whole grains.
  • Select low-fat dairy foods and healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil and nuts.
  • Limit sodium, sweets, saturated fat and trans fat.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Lose excess weight.

Q. What about medication?

A. For some people, doctors may prescribe medicine to control cholesterol.  Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs can help prevent heart attacks and strokes, but statins are not right for everyone.

Your doctor can help decide if a statin is right for you. That may depend on your age and risk factors, such as whether you:

  • Already have heart or blood vessel problems.                                            
  • Are over 40 and have other heart disease risk factors. These include smoking, diabetes or a family history of heart trouble.
  • Are young and have a very high LDL cholesterol level. 

What to do next

Help yourself have the healthiest future possible. Serious conditions like heart disease can sneak up on us. Learn how you can help prevent them or catch them earlyOpens a new window — when treatment often works best. 

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*Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered. For some blood work and lab tests, you might be responsible for a copay, coinsurance or deductible.