Cholesterol: What the Numbers Tell You

Health, Home & Family
on September 3, 2006

While a high blood cholesterol level can lead to cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol itself does not carry symptoms to warn of the potential for a heart attack or heart disease. Therefore, checking and understanding your cholesterol numbers should be part of a lifetime regimen for keeping a healthy heart—and could even save your life.

Cholesterol can be both good and bad. The body produces it naturally and needs the waxy, fat-like substance to function normally. However, excessive cholesterol creates plaque and builds up on the walls of your arteries. Over time, this buildup can slow down and even block blood flow to the heart.

By monitoring your cholesterol and taking action when it rises beyond the optimal level of 200, you can reduce your risk of a stroke, heart attack or heart disease with lifestyle changes including diet and exercise and, if your physician recommends, by taking cholesterol-lowering medications. This is especially important if you have a family history of heart disease.

No matter what your age or gender, it is important to keep your cholesterol in check. Dr. David Gordon, a preventive medicine physician with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., recommends adults begin at age 20 to have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years. Because risk factors for cardiovascular disease increase with age, men should have their cholesterol checked yearly starting at age 40 and women beginning at 50.

The numbers will tell you what to do next:

  • Desirable: Less than 200 mg/ dL – Good for you! Keep it up!
  • Borderline: 200-239 mg/ dL – Be on the alert! You are at risk for a heart attack and should make changes in your lifestyle.
  • High: 240 mg/ dL or higher – Danger zone! You have a higher risk for a heart attack. Consult your physician as soon as possible.

While age, gender and heredity all can affect cholesterol level and are beyond your control, you can lower your cholesterol naturally through other means, such as diet, exercise, weight control and choosing not to smoke. Choose foods that are low in saturated fat such as lean meats, fish, skinless poultry, whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables—and high in fiber such as oats, vegetables, dry peas and beans.

“While we are fortunate today to have safe and powerful drugs to lower high blood cholesterol, a healthy lifestyle remains the cornerstone of heart health,” Gordon says. “These are simple, basic things that any motivated person can take on.”