ldl, hdl… what it means

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell of the body. Some  cholesterol is manufactured by the liver and the rest is absorbed from food. Cholesterol is needed to make hormones and vitamin D, and it helps process fatty foods.

Too much cholesterol in the bloodstream eventually sticks and builds up as plaque in the arteries, impeding blood flow and sometimes leading to atherosclerosis, a major cause of heart attack, stroke and other vascular problems.

Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by particles called lipoproteins, which can be either low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is called “bad” because it’s linked to heart disease and stroke. HDL, the “good” cholesterol, carries the fatty particles to the liver where it can be broken down and flushed from the body.

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Know your numbers. To stay healthy and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, the goal is to keep your LDL below 100, your HDL above 60 and the total—the number you’ll see on a lab report after screening for blood cholesterol—below 200.

One in three Americans has high cholesterol. Here’s how to interpret your cholesterol numbers and the steps you can take to lower it.

Risk Factors. Although high cholesterol can run in families, more often it’s caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices. Carrying excess body weight and eating a lot of animal fats are linked to high levels of LDL cholesterol. So are a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and other unhealthy habits.

What’s more, cholesterol levels naturally rise as we age—this is especially so for post-menopausal women. Race and ethnicity are factors, too; the highest cholesterol rates are found among Hispanic men and white, non-Hispanic women.

Monitoring and managing. The American Heart Association recommends a cholesterol screening every four to six years—more often if you are overweight, have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, or if you’re inactive or a smoker. Talk with your provider about what your results mean and what you can do to manage your cholesterol. Some people benefit from a cholesterol-lowering drug like Lipitor.

But the first line of defense is to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Get enough physical activity; limit red meat and eat more fish, whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables; moderate your intake of alcohol, saturated fats and trans fats (the culprits found in junk foods); and avoid tobacco.

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