Cholesterol has a negative reputation, with more than 1 in 3 Americans suffering from high cholesterol, according to the CDC. While high cholesterol can lead to serious health problems, the truth is that your body needs cholesterol to function. With the right heart-healthy lifestyle, managing your cholesterol doesn’t have to be scary.
Cholesterol is a substance carried through the bloodstream that helps build healthy cells. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). If you have chronically high levels of waxy LDL cholesterol in your blood, fatty deposits known as plaque can build up in your arteries and increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. However, not all cholesterol is bad: HDL – often referred to as “good” cholesterol – works to sweep up excess cholesterol and carry it back to the liver.
High cholesterol has no symptoms, which means you won’t know if your cholesterol levels are in an unhealthy range unless you get checked out. Fortunately, a simple blood test can tell you all you need to know about your cholesterol levels, and it’s a preventive screening that is often covered by health insurance at no cost to you. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors – including family history, obesity, and smoking – to determine how often you might need to get screened. Your doctor can review the results with you and discuss if you need to make changes to lower your cholesterol levels.
The good news is that high cholesterol is preventable and treatable. Limit the amount of foods you eat with dietary cholesterol – found in animal foods like meat, seafood, eggs and dairy – which can raise your bad cholesterol. Practice a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, managing stress and limiting alcohol. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, your doctor may prescribe medication to aid the body’s ability to lower cholesterol.
Ignorance isn’t always bliss, as that cholesterol you’ve left unchecked may be doing untold damage to your arteries. Knowledge is power: The first step to taking control of your health is knowing your numbers. Make a note to talk to your doctor about cholesterol at your next visit.
Joseph R. Cunningham, M.D. is the president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma, a division of Health Care Service Corp., a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.