Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that your body produces to make hormones and vitamin D, to build cell walls and to help digest food. Your body manufactures all the cholesterol you need. You also get cholesterol from some of the foods that you eat.
Monitoring your cholesterol is important for your health because the higher your cholesterol, the greater your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Each year, more than a million Americans have heart attacks, and some 450,000 die from heart disease. It is the nation's number two killer.
When there is too much cholesterol in your body, it builds up in the walls of your arteries. Eventually, this damaging accumulation of cholesterol causes your arteries to narrow, slowing or blocking the flow of blood to your heart. This condition is called atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries."
If your heart doesn't get enough blood and oxygen, you may suffer chest pain. When the blood supply to a portion of your heart is completely blocked, it causes a heart attack.
High cholesterol usually doesn't have any symptoms. As a result, many people don't realize that their cholesterol is elevated. Beginning at age 20, you should have a cholesterol test at least once every five years. Learn about your ideal cholesterol level.
Good Cholesterol and Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels throughout your body in two different lipoproteins (fat/protein packages). It is important to have healthy levels of both. You've probably heard of "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol. Here's what it means:
- LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol is called "bad" cholesterol because it's the main source of harmful cholesterol buildup and clogged arteries. The higher your LDL level, the greater your risk of heart disease.
- HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol is called good cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your liver where it is removed from your body. The higher your HDL level, the lower your risk of heart disease.
Triglycerides are yet another fat that your body makes and that you also get in food. People with high triglycerides frequently have high cholesterol, a high LDL cholesterol level and a low HDL cholesterol level. Your triglyceride levels are usually checked as part of your cholesterol test.