Understand Your Condition
You probably know that fried chicken, a doughnut or a loaded double cheeseburger are not the best foods to put in your body. Why? Because foods like these are packed with unhealthy fats and lack many of the important nutrients for heart health.
While our bodies need a certain amount of cholesterol to work properly, too much of the “bad” type can be dangerous. Over time, cholesterol and fat can collect in the inner walls of the arteries—including the ones that supply blood to the heart. This buildup can cause atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries and a major cause of cardiovascular disease. People with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also called the “bad” cholesterol, are at greater risk for cardiac events.
The good news is that high cholesterol is often preventable and treatable. Studies show that keeping LDL low can not only prevent someone from developing clogged or narrowed arteries in the first place (primary prevention), but doing so also helps reduce the likelihood of a heart attack, stroke or related death among people who already have heart disease (secondary prevention). The opposite is true, too: Those with high levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the “good” cholesterol—tend to have cleaner arteries and lower risk of heart attack and stroke. That’s because HDL acts like a scavenger, helping to find harmful cholesterol and remove it from your arteries.
The challenge is that there are often no signs or red flags of having too much bad cholesterol until it starts to affect your arteries. For this reason, it's important to know your cholesterol numbers and your related risk for developing heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
Increasingly, research shows that keeping LDL cholesterol levels low is an essential part of staying heart healthy. Adopting a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, keeping weight well managed and, in some cases, taking a medication, can go a long way to help.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that travels through the blood in carrier vehicles called lipoproteins. Cholesterol is in some foods we eat and is also made by the liver. It serves a variety of functions. For example, it helps create the outer coating of our cells and aids the body in making vitamin D and certain hormones.
Excess amounts of dietary fats get absorbed by the body and raise bad cholesterol in the blood.
Saturated and trans fats raise LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Foods that are high in animal fat (full-fat milk, cheese, meat) and/or prepared with butter, shortening or partially hydrogenated oils and sweets (cookies and cakes) are often the main culprits.
How do I know which foods have saturated or trans fats?
- Read food labels.
- Pay attention to what it looks like when it’s left out. Saturated fats, such as butter or shortening are usually solid at room temperature. On the other hand, olive oil remains liquid and is considered a healthier type of dietary fat (monounsaturated).
- Steer clear of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.
- Remember, some foods that seem healthy may have hidden sources of extra calories and fat. Some salad dressings (and other sauces) can be laden with so much saturated fat that they can defeat what you are trying to do by eating the salad.
What Does It Feel Like?
Many people don’t know that they have high levels of harmful cholesterol. That’s because there are usually no signs or symptoms associated with an early buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fat and other substances. It’s not until there may be a significant blockage of the artery that someone might notice something is wrong. For example, they may have chest pain, pain in the arms or jaw, nausea, sweating, or shortness of breath—these usually occur when the blood supply to the heart is being slowed or blocked. Unfortunately, these blockages can rupture and cause major problems, even when they are much smaller and without causing any early symptoms. That is why, for some people, the first sign of elevated cholesterol may be a heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol can affect the body in a number of ways
Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol can:
- Cause irritation or swelling of the artery walls
- Promote the formation of blood clots
- Reduce or block the flow of blood through the arteries
So—even if you’re feeling good—it’s a good idea to get your cholesterol checked. Your doctor will consider your cholesterol numbers along with any other factors that make heart disease or stroke more likely to occur, such as your age, if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, of if you smoke.
What Puts You at Risk?
High LDL and total cholesterol are generally related to either genetics or poor lifestyle habits which include:
- Eating unhealthy fats and simple carbohydrates
- Not exercising regularly
- Being overweight or obese
In addition, you have a greater chance of heart disease or a stroke if you have:
Keep Tabs on Your Cholesterol
It's important to track your cholesterol and risk for related heart disease, heart attack or stroke. A simple blood test—called a lipid panel—is used to check the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL) of blood—mg/dL in the United States. The test provides four measures:
- Total or overall cholesterol
- LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol
- HDL, or “good,” cholesterol
It’s important to track your cholesterol over time, especially because there are often no signs and symptoms of early buildup of fat and cholesterol in the artery walls. Talk with your health care provider about how often your cholesterol should be checked and what numbers would be ideal for you.
A heart-healthy lifestyle is recommended regardless of whether you have high cholesterol or not.
Your treatment plan to lower your cholesterol numbers and help optimize your heart health will be based on your overall risk for cardiovascular disease. For example, a standard risk assessment would note whether you already have atherosclerosis or have a high chance of developing it. Recommended treatments will also depend on:
- Your cholesterol levels
- Other conditions you may have
- Previous treatments tried (if applicable)
- Personal choice
Trying to lower elevated levels of LDL often can be helped by making healthier lifestyle choices. In fact, the choices we make every day can affect our cholesterol.
Here are four things that can make a difference:
- Revamp the way you eat by following a heart-healthy plan such as the Mediterranean or DASH diets (these are less “diets” and more ways to adopt more healthy patterns of eating)
- Exercise regularly
- Stay at a healthy weight and lose any extra pounds
- Don’t smoke, and stay away from secondhand smoke
Many people with elevated LDL cholesterol also need to take medication.
Adopting a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise are the most important steps you can take to prevent or control cholesterol problems and heart disease. Here are some general tips:
- Get physical. Aim to get a minimum of 30 minutes of (moderate-intensity) activity at least five times a week. Activities might include a brisk walk, jogging, riding a bike, swimming—even gardening or heavy housework. If you don’t have a 30-minute block of time free, even 10-minute bursts of activity three times throughout the day is helpful. Consider wearing a device that keeps track of the number of steps you take each day so that you know your starting point.
- Take time to read and understand food labels, and pay special attention to the amount of saturated fats, trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils) and sugar content.
- Try to avoid full-fat dairy products, processed foods, and foods high in salt (sodium) and preservatives.
- Swap out butter or margarine for healthier fats such as olive oil, avocados and a handful of almonds (remember, fat that becomes solid on the counter should probably be avoided). Nuts, fish, certain oils (olive, canola and peanut oils) and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are good choices.
- Consider keeping a food diary so you can see what you are eating and what dietary habits you might need to change.
- Ask about seeing a dietitian or nutritionist who can help you meal plan and provide dietary strategies for lowering LDL or triglycerides, and improving your sugar levels and boosting your energy.
- As with any goal, start small. Make sure you are setting yourself up for success.
- Limit alcohol. Too much alcohol can raise triglyceride levels and blood pressure.
Many people who have excess LDL cholesterol also need to take medicine to lower their cholesterol levels at some point. This is especially true for people with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or those who are at high risk for developing it.
Statins—in combination with lifestyle changes—are still the drug treatment of choice. Research has shown that the use of statins can reduce the risk of cardiac events like heart attack, stroke and related death. There are at least seven statins available, and they work in different ways; for example by:
- Reducing the amount of cholesterol made by the liver
- Removing cholesterol from the blood
- Reducing cholesterol in plaque
- Reducing inflammation from plaque
- Preventing plaque from dislodging or forming a clot that may block an artery
As with any medication, it is important to tell your doctor about any side effects or problems from statins. Though side effects are not common, your doctor may decide to:
MORE: What You Need to Know about Statins
MORE: Straight Talk about Statins
- Order a blood test to find out if there may be another cause of your symptoms
- Lower the dose of the statin you are taking
- Switch you to a different statin
- Prescribe an alternative dosing schedule
Other medications (non-statins) include:
MORE: Other LDL Cholesterol Treatments
- Cholesterol absorption inhibitor/Ezetimibe
- Bile-acid-binding sequestrants or resins and high-dose omega-3 fatty acids for treating severe high levels of triglycerides
- Fibrates (mostly used to treat high levels of triglycerides)
- PCSK9 inhibitors
No matter which medication your clinician prescribes, take your medications exactly as directed—that’s the only way to make sure they work as intended. If you have side effects or concerns, talk with your health care provider before making any changes. Your pharmacist is also a good resource if you have questions.
Did You Know?
- People with high total cholesterol are twice as likely to develop heart disease.
- About 1 in 3 American adults has high LDL.
- For women, knowing their cholesterol levels becomes even more important after menopause because they often change at this time.
Talking to Your Care Team
Your health care team will work with you to help prevent or treat high cholesterol and support your overall cardiovascular health. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
- What is my cholesterol?
- What’s the difference between LDL cholesterol and triglycerides?
- Will exercise and diet alone be enough to lower my cholesterol?
- How does cholesterol relate to the risk of cardiovascular disease?
- How much exercise should I be getting? What types of activities are best for me?
- Are there foods I should avoid/eat more of?
- Do I need medication? If so, which medication and why?
- When can we expect to see a difference?
- What side effects should I watch for?
- I know statins are usually the first drug therapy, but what can you tell me about non-statin medications?
- I feel fine. Why do I need medicine to lower my cholesterol?
- What can I do to raise my “good” cholesterol?
- How often do I need to get my cholesterol level checked?
- What about my other risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
For More Information
To learn more about cholesterol, go to CardioSmart.org/HighCholesterol. You can find out more by visiting:
Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
Last reviewed: November 2018
Medical Reviewers: Martha Gulati, MD, MS, FACC, FAHA, FASPC; Salim S. Virani, MD, FACC