What Is High Cholesterol?

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High cholesterol can harm your health. It's important to keep track of your cholesterol levels because you may not have any other symptoms until a serious problem occurs—like a heart attack or a stroke.

This article explains what causes high cholesterol. It also discusses how to treat and prevent it.

Understanding Cholesterol Results
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Overview

All of your cells contain cholesterol. You need this fatty material to produce hormones, digest food, and make vitamin D.

Your body has two main types of cholesterol: LDL and HDL. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is sometimes called "bad" cholesterol. High LDL levels can contribute to cholesterol buildup in the arteries, which leads to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

High-density lipoprotein or HDL, on the other hand, works like a cleanup crew in the bloodstream. It ferries excess cholesterol from the tissues back to the liver, which breaks it down. That means higher HDL levels are good for the heart.

Your body also has other types of cholesterol in small amounts.

Your healthcare provider can measure each type. The combined numbers show your total cholesterol level.

High cholesterol is defined as a total cholesterol level above 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), The target level for a healthy adult is below 200 mg/dL. It's much more common to have high levels than it is to have very low levels.

Experts recommend that healthy adults have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years. You may need to have it checked more often if you are older than 65 or have certain health conditions.

A high total cholesterol level or a high LDL level means a greater risk of heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, responsible for one out of every four deaths. Nearly 659,000 people die of heart disease each year.

Diagnosis

The typical cholesterol test is called a lipid profile test. You'll likely be asked not to eat anything for nine to 12 hours before the test. It requires a sample of your blood.

The lipid profile gives several different measurements of your cholesterol levels. The simplest is total cholesterol, which includes the combined levels of LDL, HDL, and other types such as very-low-density lipoprotein or VLDL.

The lipid profile also gives a detailed breakdown of cholesterol levels by lipid (fat) type: LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. Triglycerides are the main type of fat that circulates in your blood. High levels of triglycerides are also linked to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

According to current guidelines, the following levels are desirable:

  • LDL: Levels below 100 mg/dL for most adults, though levels above 70 mg/dL may be too high for people with diabetes or a high risk of heart disease
  • HDL: Levels above 40 mg/dL for males, levels above 50 mg/dL for females
  • Triglycerides: Levels below 150 mg/dL

If you've already had a lipid test and you're not sure what the numbers mean, you can use our lipid test analyzer. Type your test results into the tool below. It can help you see what your levels may mean for your health. You can follow up with your healthcare provider.

Causes

Your genes, your diet, and how much you exercise can all influence your cholesterol levels.

  • Diet: High-fat, processed foods can raise your LDL levels. So can obesity. Excess body fat can increase the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.
  • Lack of exercise: Not getting enough physical activity can raise your LDL level. It can also cause your HDL level to be too low.
  • Genetics: Sometimes the way your body naturally processes fat and cholesterol can cause your levels to be unhealthy.
  • Age: Males over 45 years of age and females over 55 years of age often have high cholesterol levels because the body doesn't process cholesterol as well as you get older.

High cholesterol can harm young people, too. Researchers have found that fatty plaques of cholesterol can begin forming before adulthood. They can take up space in your blood vessels. When blood vessels are too narrow, you're at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

About 1 in every 200-500 people have a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. This genetic condition can boost cholesterol levels to twice the normal level.

Treatment

Bringing your cholesterol level into a healthy range is important for heart health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high total cholesterol levels are especially dangerous for people who smoke or have a family history of heart disease.

High cholesterol can also make some health conditions worse, including:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

In most cases, changes in diet and increased exercise are the first steps for lowering high cholesterol levels. Health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Other strategies include avoiding foods high in saturated fats and maintaining a healthy weight.

Foods to Avoid

Roughly 80% of the cholesterol in your blood is produced by your liver and intestines. The rest comes from your diet. It's important to avoid fried foods, foods high in saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates if you have high cholesterol. Some examples include:

  • Fatty meats, particularly red meat
  • Whole-fat dairy products
  • Processed foods
  • White bread
  • White potatoes
  • White rice
  • Highly processed sugars or flours

Foods proven to reduce cholesterol include:

Medications

If lifestyle changes don't lower your levels enough, your healthcare provider may prescribe a type of drug called statins. They help reduce LDL and triglyceride levels and increase HDL levels.

Statins are the most widely prescribed class of cholesterol-lowering drugs. They limit the liver's ability to make cholesterol.

These are examples of statin medications:

Summary

Your body needs some cholesterol to carry out important functions. But if your total or LDL cholesterol levels are too high, you're at risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health problems.

A simple test can tell you how high your levels are. Aim for an LDL level under 100 mg/dL and an HDL level 40 mg/dL or higher. Your triglyceride level should be under 150 mg/dL.

If your test shows you need to bring these numbers down, try to get 150 minutes of exercise each week. You can also try cutting out high-fat, highly processed foods. Your healthcare provider may recommend medication if these steps aren't effective enough.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. MedlinePlus. High blood cholesterol levels. Updated February 22, 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heart disease facts. Updated September 27, 2021.

  4. MedlinePlus. Cholesterol levels: what you need to know. Updated June 3, 2021.

  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Overweight and obesity. Updated October 22, 2021.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. LDL cholesterol and heart health. Updated May 24, 2019.

  7. Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation. Surprising familial hypercholesterolemia statistics. Updated March 6, 2015.

  8. American Heart Association. Lifestyle changes for heart attack prevention. Updated July 31, 2015.

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  10. Harvard Health Publishing. 11 foods that lower cholesterol. Updated February 6, 2019.

  11. American Heart Association. Cholesterol medications. Updated November 10, 2018.

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