According to the Mayo Clinic in the US: Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes, those deposits can break suddenly and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.
High cholesterol can be inherited, but it’s often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, which make it preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and sometimes medication can help reduce high cholesterol. Risk factors that you can control include:
• Poor diet. Eating saturated fat, found in animal products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers and microwave popcorn, can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, will also increase your cholesterol.
• Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
• Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or “good,” cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
• Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking might also lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
• Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher levels of a dangerous cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.
Everyone could probably benefit from having an occasional blood test for cholesterol levels (say every five years), but if you are at more risk than average (eg. Being overweight, heart disease, high blood pressure, or history of smoking) then your doctor will want to test more frequently.
As with most medical issues, Cholesterol is not just one simple compound, but is of various types, including “HDL”, which is good for you, and “LDL” which is bad for you, so it’s not just a matter of measuring your total cholesterol.
A test will give you these measures:
Total Cholesterol, made up of HDL (Good) cholesterol, and non-HDL cholesterol.
The non-HDL figure mostly comprises the amount of LDL (Bad) cholesterol, which you may be given separately.
You may also be given a measure of a related compound called triglyceride, a high level of which can also increase your risk of heart disease.
Cholesterol requires a simple blood test, and if you are at all concerned, then ask your doctor to be tested. Your cholesterol includes HDL (good), LDL (bad) and some smaller components.
For older adults, the figures that are ideal are:
Total Cholesterol should be less than 5 mmol/L
HDL (good) levels should be greater than 1 mmol/L
Non-HDL should be less than 4 mmol/L (includes LDL)
LDL (bad) should be less than 3 mmol/L
Another measure often taken at the same time is of Triglycerides, which should be below 1.7 mmol/L
But just a note of warning. Cholesterol is an important part of your body’s mechanisms, and there can actually be risks of having too low a figure. In “The End of Alzheimer’s” a total cholesterol less than 3.9 can be a threat in itself, partly contributing to cognitive decline.
However, for most people the issue is having too high a level, particularly of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and that should be your main concern. Although medication can help, the key to getting to normal levels is through diet and lifestyle.
So if your cholesterol levels are outside the recommended limits, then you need to take action, as in the Mayo recommendations above, in summary:
• Avoid or at least reduce consumption of meat, dairy products and biscuits etc.
• If your BMI or waistline is larger than average, then change your eating habits.
• Get regular exercise.
• If you smoke, quit.
• If you have diabetes, or are borderline, cut right down on your sugar intake.
If you want to avoid getting unsatisfactory levels in the first place, then of course the same recommendations apply.
My own story? Before I went vegan, I was borderline unsatisfactory at a total cholesterol of 5.2
A year later I got tested and the level was safely down to 4.1
NHS on cholesterol: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/high-cholesterol/
Link to my post on “Heart Disease”
Link to my post on “Alzheimer’s Disease“