Typically, when you hear the word “cholesterol” you might start thinking of the negative effect it can have on your health. High cholesterol is bad, but not all cholesterol wants to increase your risk of heart disease or stroke.
So, we put together a list. It’s designed to help you figure out if your understanding of cholesterol and heart health is based on fact or fiction.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine say cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates through your body. Cholesterol doesn’t float freely in the blood — it must be carried by lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are particles that form in the liver and are made of fat and protein. It takes part in some beneficial functions such as cell membrane health and brain function, but it’s low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that gives it a bad name.
LDL is described as “the garbage left behind” after the beneficial cholesterol has been used. This is the “bad” cholesterol we want to get rid of. Too much LDL cholesterol can build up in artery walls, contributing to the formation of plaque, the deposits that harden and narrow the arteries. This sets the stage for a possible future heart attack or stroke.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), on the other hand, helps remove cholesterol from the arteries and prevent fatty buildup.
The lower your cholesterol, the lower your risk for heart disease. But it’s more complicated than that. Your risk for heart disease is lower when you have low total cholesterol and low LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the fatty substance that is most related to the blocked arteries that cause heart disease.
But your risk for heart disease is actually higher if you have a low HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol level. HDL is the "good" cholesterol -- it helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries.
A lot of foods marked "low cholesterol" contain oils that may be high in saturated fats, which can make your cholesterol level higher! These fats are also high in calories. Don't confuse cholesterol and fat. Look for foods that are low in cholesterol, fat, and calories.
Don’t wait to start having your cholesterol levels checked. Because coronary heart disease is a slow, gradual process that probably starts in childhood, it is important that cholesterol levels be checked as early as age 20.
If your values are within normal range and you do not have other risk factors for heart disease, you can continue getting tested every five years. If they aren't normal, you should talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make or medication you may need.
An easy way to keep track of your cholesterol is by downloading our guide “Know Your Numbers: Cholesterol.” In it, you’ll find three myths about cholesterol and 7 questions to ask your doctor about your cholesterol.