What to know about LDL/HDL during National Cholesterol Education Month

When was the last time you got your cholesterol checked? That's the question that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes is on the minds of every American this September as they sponsor National Cholesterol Education Month. This nationwide public health initiative was created to educate Americans about the health dangers of excessive cholesterol, and the practical steps anyone can take to get them back to healthy levels.

According to the CDC, more than 102 million American adults have unhealthy cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL and above (healthy total cholesterol is 170 mg/dL and lower), which increases their risk of heart disease and other complications later in life. As September gets underway, this is an ideal time to use your flex dollars to get your blood cholesterol checked and learn what it takes to lower these numbers to healthier levels.

But first, let's find out what cholesterol is and how it can affect your long-term health prospects.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that naturally occurs in the body, which plays a role in the production of hormones, vitamin D and other substances that help us digest foods, reports The Mayo Clinic.

Additionally, cholesterol is found in the foods that we eat, primary those that are derived from animal products like eggs, liver, fish, butter, shellfish, shrimp, bacon, sausage, red meat and cheese. LDL and HDL levels, as well as one fifth of your triglyceride (the amount of fat in the blood) level, make up your total cholesterol count.

However, cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood, rather it is carried by particles called lipoproteins, molecules that are made of fat and proteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells. These are split into two major categories, HDL and LDL cholesterol per The Mayo Clinic.

  • LDL cholesterol is the type that you want to avoid. LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, contributes to the thick deposits of plaque that can build up along the walls of arteries in a process called atherosclerosis. If this is allowed to progress, clots can form that can result in heart attacks, strokes and many other health problems.
  • HDL cholesterol is often considered to be the "good" type of cholesterol that counteracts the effects of LDL by helping to clear it from the arteries. HDL can carry this LDL away from the arteries and into the liver where it is broken down and flushed from the body. As such, having high HDL levels will reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

How do I lower my cholesterol numbers?

With all of this in mind, the next step is to get your total cholesterol count under control so you can reduce your risk of major heart issues later in life. These suggestions from The Mayo Clinic include:

  • Diet: What you eat is the biggest factor affecting your cholesterol count, so make an effort to avoid foods that are extremely high in cholesterol. To lower cholesterol, choose healthier fats (lean meats, low-fat diary, monounsaturated fats), avoid trans fats, and make sure to eat more omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fiber to lower your LDL levels.
  • Exercise: Physical activity is one of the most important factors in raising one's HDL cholesterol, and even a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise daily can play a vital role in improving your numbers. Additionally, losing excess weight can help improve cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking Cessation: Smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease, and quitting can help contribute to an immediate spike in HDL levels. Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate will decrease, which will halve your risk of heart disease in one year.
  • Alcohol Consumption: While moderate consumption of alcohol has been found to actually improve HDL levels in a number of studies, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Ideally, men older than age 65 and women of all ages should limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day, while men 65 and younger should cap it at 2 drinks per day.

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