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Why you should care about your cholesterol

A Black man and Black woman stroll down a path in the woods, smiling.

Along with high blood pressure, obesity and poor lifestyle habits, unhealthy cholesterol is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. But you can take steps to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

Because so many things can affect your health, awareness is key. Awareness of risk factors, prevention options and screening recommendations can help you avoid many major health problems or detect them early on, when they might be easier to treat.

One health concern that all adults should be aware of is cholesterol, a waxy, fatlike substance that plays a major role in heart health, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Here are three reasons you should be aware of your cholesterol levels:

1. Cholesterol can help your heart.

You're probably aware that cholesterol can be harmful. The bad form, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.

But there's a good form of cholesterol too. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps move cholesterol to the liver, where it's removed from the body. The higher your HDL level, the lower your risk of heart disease is.

"It's important to know more than just your total cholesterol level," says Robert H. Eckel, MD, past president of the AHA. "You need to know both your bad and good cholesterol levels. By knowing your cholesterol levels and taking steps to control cholesterol, you can greatly reduce your risk for heart disease."

2. Unhealthy cholesterol levels don't cause symptoms.

With some health concerns, you'll experience early warning signs of a problem. Not so with cholesterol. There are usually no signs or symptoms to signal that your cholesterol is in an unhealthy range. The only way to know for sure is to have your doctor do a simple blood test that measures cholesterol.

Furthermore, you can't count on cholesterol becoming a problem only in your later years. In fact, it's a good idea to be aware of cholesterol levels early in life, so you can take steps to control them and reduce your risk for heart disease later on.

"All adults 20 years of age and older should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years, or more frequently if it's too high," Dr. Eckel says.

Due to the growing epidemic of obesity in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children between 9 and 11 years old also be screened.

3. Cholesterol is controllable.

There's much you can do to help keep your bad cholesterol levels low and your good cholesterol levels high.

While medication may sometimes be needed, lifestyle changes can often have a big impact on cholesterol levels.

Eating right is essential. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs to be healthy—it's typically your diet that leads to trouble.

"Try to follow a heart-healthy diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated and trans fats," Dr. Eckel says. 

You can also help control cholesterol by:

  • Staying physically active on a regular basis.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Avoiding tobacco smoke.
  • Taking any cholesterol-lowering medications prescribed by your doctor.

"Be sure to work with your doctor to make sure you have a plan to reach your LDL cholesterol-level goals," Dr. Eckel says. "Cholesterol can be controlled if you take the right steps."

Reviewed 2/10/2022

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