We’ve all heard that having too much cholesterol can be a bad thing – it creates fatty plaques in our arteries and can lead to heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke. However, we actually need cholesterol in small amounts (it’s responsible for producing the cells in our body, as well as the hormones estrogen and testosterone, bile acids, and Vitamin D), and not all cholesterol is considered “bad.” When it comes to your cholesterol, you need to consider not just your total cholesterol levels, but your levels of each different type of cholesterol, most notably:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol). LDL clings to the walls of your arteries, which leads to a buildup of the fatty plaques that can contribute to heart disease.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol). HDL protects you against this fatty plaque buildup by acting as a broom and sweeping the LDL from your arteries. HDL also helps protect you against heart disease and stroke in other ways: it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic (meaning it protects against blood clots), and has antioxidant properties.
In the past, doctors focused mainly on total cholesterol levels, but new research is showing that LDL and HDL levels are actually a better indicator of heart disease/stroke risk. Low LDL and high HDL levels are desirable:
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable
200 – 239 mg/dL Borderline High
240 mg/dL or higher High
Less than 130 mg/dL Desirable
130-159 mg/dL Borderline High
160 mg/dL or higher High
Less than 40 mg/dL Low (Undesirable)
Greater than 60 mg/dL High (Desirable)
If any of your numbers are not within the desired range, your doctor will work with you to get them where they need to be by making certain dietary and lifestyle changes. He or she may also run additional tests to help better determine your risk for heart disease or stroke. Cholesterol levels alone don’t paint the entire picture, but they can help you understand your risk – and spur you to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce that risk.