Cholesterol: Know your numbers

Do you have high cholesterol? If you did, would you know it? The answer is quite simply: no.

I am still amazed when I hear that there are people out there that do not know their cholesterol number; in particular, those with a family history of heart disease, stroke or heart attack.

Like high blood pressure, if your cholesterol is elevated you wouldn’t necessarily feel it. So, unless you ask your doctor to check your cholesterol, there is absolutely no way for you to determine your number or make the necessary changes that would help lower your risk for heart disease.

For some out there, not acknowledging important numbers like cholesterol doesn’t mean you will never have to deal with this health issue. If you have high cholesterol, your body will eventually let you know. Unfortunately, you don’t want a heart attack or a stroke to be that wake up call.

If you have had your cholesterol checked but do not necessarily understand what those numbers mean, read on.

Your cholesterol consists of two main types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (commonly referred to as bad cholesterol), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (commonly referred to as good cholesterol).

LDL cholesterol has the ability to clog your blood vessels by forming plaque along artery walls. If ignored, this plaque will harden and continue to grow ultimately resulting in a blocked blood vessel or clot. Ideally, you want to keep your low-density cholesterol low.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the optimal level of LDL cholesterol is below 100 mg/dL. High LDL cholesterol is defined as 160 mg/dL or higher.

HDL cholesterol on the other hand is nature’s plaque vacuum cleaner, carrying all that vessel-clogging cholesterol to the liver, where it can be disposed of in the form of bile. Because your HDL cholesterol keeps your blood vessels clean, you want this number to be high.

According to the NIH, you have a lower risk of heart disease with an HDL of 60 mg/dL or higher. If your HDL is under 40 mg/dL, this is considered too low.

Besides knowing your LDL and HDL, it is also important to learn your cholesterol ratio. This is your total cholesterol divided by your HDL cholesterol. For example, if your total cholesterol number is 250 (this total number should ideally be under 200), and your HDL is 50, your ratio is 250/50 or 5. A ratio of 3.5 is considered optimal; aim for a ratio of 5 or less.

Let’s not leave out triglycerides. Triglycerides are just another type of blood fat. High triglyceride levels make blood thicker and stickier, which means that it is more likely to form clots. Normal triglyceride levels are defined as less than 150 mg/dL. Studies have shown that high triglycerides are associated with an increased risk in heart disease and stroke in both men and women. Add high LDL cholesterol to the mix and this risk increases substantially.

So, please take charge of your health now. Know your numbers and learn what you can do to keep your cholesterol low and your heart healthy.

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