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Cholesterol Control: Fact and Fiction

Get the entire 411 on cholesterol.

Of all the risk factors for coronary heart disease (blockages in the heart’s arteries that can cause heart attacks), cholesterol receives the most attention. Hundreds of medical studies confirm the truth: you must understand cholesterol in order to manage your heart health.

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Cholesterol Control: Fact and Fiction

The Internet offers millions of sites promising to reveal the “secrets” of cholesterol. Some are accurate, but many are not. Beware websites claiming that cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease (wrong!) and those that tout “magic” remedies that promise to drive cholesterol levels to super-low levels that will melt away plaques and reverse heart disease (don’t count on it!). Accurate, evidence-based information is your key to successful cholesterol management.

What is cholesterol?

A waxy, yellowish white substance, cholesterol was first isolated by an eighteenth-century French chemist who was studying gallstones. This observation led scientists to link cholesterol to illness and disease, but subsequent research proved this theory incorrect. It turns out that every cell in your body contains cholesterol, and you can’t live without it!

Cholesterol is a key component of the cell membrane, the outer barrier between the cell and the rest of the body. Within the membrane, cholesterol molecules act like tollbooths, helping to regulate the passage of materials into and out of the cell. Cholesterol also serves as a building block for many important hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. Your body even needs cholesterol to manufacture vitamin D from sunlight.

VIDEO: Where Does Cholesterol Come From?

Cholesterol tests: what do the numbers mean?

When you get a cholesterol test (lipid profile), we measure cholesterol and fat concentrations in your blood. The typical blood test provides four values.

Lipid Profile

Test

Normal Value

LDL cholesterol

Less than 130

HDL cholesterol

Greater than 40 in men and 45 in women

Total cholesterol

Less than 200

Triglycerides

Less than 150

Of these tests, LDL cholesterol is most important. A high LDL cholesterol is associated with the development of coronary heart disease, as well as stroke and peripheral arterial disease. In general, the lower the LDL cholesterol, the lower the risk of heart disease. While we state that a value less than 130 is “normal,” the person with multiple risk factors for coronary heart disease should aim for 100 or less and the person who already has heart disease should target 70 or less.

HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol. The higher a person’s HDL, the lower the risk of coronary heart disease. In general, your total cholesterol is somewhat less important than your LDL or HDL values.

Elevated triglycerides have been associated with coronary heart disease, although scientists have not yet proven that lowering triglycerides is protective.

QUIZ: Measure The Effects of Your Cholesterol & Other Health Markers

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