Why Is Cholesterol Important?
High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. In fact, the higher your blood
cholesterol, the greater your risk of developing heart
disease or having a heart attack. Heart disease is the
#1 killer of men and women in the United States.
Each year, more than a million Americans have a
heart attack, and about half a million people die of
How Does Cholesterol Cause
When there is too much cholesterol (a fat-like substance) in your blood, it builds up in the walls of
your arteries. Over time, this buildup causes “hardening of the arteries” so that arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart becomes slowed
down or blocked. This may cause chest pain or even
a heart attack.
High blood cholesterol itself does not cause symptoms, so many people are unaware when their
cholesterol is too high. It is important to find out
your cholesterol numbers. Lowering levels that are
too high lessens the risk of developing heart disease
or dying from it if you already have it.
What Do Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean
Getting a blood test called a fasting lipoprotein
profile will give information about your:
1) Cholesterol is measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per
deciliter (dL) of blood.
- Total cholesterol-It is desirable to have a
measurement of less than 200 mg/dL.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”)
cholesterol-the main source of cholesterol
buildup and blockage in the arteries. It is
optimal to have an LDL level lower than
100 mg/dL. (The higher your LDL cholesterol
level, the greater your chance of getting heart
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”)
cholesterol-which helps keep cholesterol
from building up in the arteries. An HDL of
≥ 60 mg/dL will help lower your risk for heart
disease. (The higher your HDL cholesterol level,
the lower your chance of getting heart disease.)
- Triglycerides-another form of fat in your
blood. Levels that are borderline high
(150-199 mg/dL) or high (≥ 200 mg/dL) may
need treatment in some people.
What Affects Cholesterol Levels?
A variety of things can affect cholesterol levels.
These are things you can do something about:
- Diet-Saturated fat and cholesterol in food may
increase your cholesterol level.
- Weight-Being overweight tends to increase
your cholesterol level.
- Physical activity-Being inactive is a risk factor
for heart disease. Regular physical activity
can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL
Things you cannot do anything about also can affect
your cholesterol levels. These include:
- Age and gender-As people get older, their
cholesterol levels rise.
- Heredity-High cholesterol can run in families.
Treating High Cholesterol
The main goal of cholesterol-lowering treatment is
to lower your LDL level enough to reduce your risk
of developing heart disease or having a heart attack.
Four risk categories (numbered I-IV) will affect the
type of treatment that is right for you. Talk with
your doctor to learn your risk category and recommended treatment.
There are two main ways to lower your cholesterol:
To reduce your risk for heart disease or keep it low,
it is very important to control any other risk factors you may have, such as high blood pressure and
- Therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC)-includes
a cholesterol lowering diet (called the TLC diet),
physical activity, and weight management. TLC
is for anyone whose LDL is above goal.
- Drug therapy-If cholesterol-lowering drugs
are needed, they are used together with TLC
treatment to help lower LDL.
More information on lowering cholesterol is
available from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood
Institute (NHLBI) Web site at www.nhlbi.nih.gov
(under Health Information for the Public). Podcasts
and Spanish-language articles also can be found in
the online Diseases and Conditions Index at
You also can order or download information on
lowering cholesterol from the NHLBI Web site or
by calling the NHLBI Health Information Center at
301-592-8573 (TTY: 240-629-3255).
NIH Publication No. 09-7424