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93 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL. Nearly 29 million adult Americans have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL. 7% of U.S. children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 have high total cholesterol.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid. It’s a waxy, fat-like substance that your liver produces naturally. It’s vital for the formation of cell membranes, certain hormones, and vitamin D. Cholesterol doesn’t dissolve in water, so it can’t travel through your blood on its own. To help transport cholesterol, your liver produces lipoproteins.

There are different types of cholesterol, based on what the lipoprotein carries. They are:

LDL (low-density lipoprotein): Also called “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in the walls of your arteries and form plaque. Plaque build-up in the arteries can reduce blood flow and increase your risk of heart disease.

HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol: Also called “good” cholesterol because it is thought to help remove “bad” cholesterol from the body.

Your ideal cholesterol level will depend on your risk for heart disease.

  • Total cholesterol level – less than 200 is best, but it depends on your HDL and LDL levels.
  • LDL cholesterol levels – less than 130 is best, but this depends on your risk for heart disease.
  • HDL cholesterol levels – 60 or higher reduces your risk for heart disease.
  • Triglycerides – less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) is best.

Reasons for High Cholesterol

There are various factors which can increase your risk of bad cholesterol 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.
  • Age. Because your body's chemistry changes as you age, your risk of high cholesterol climbs. For instance, as you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol.
  • Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher levels of dangerous cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.

How to control Your Cholesterol

The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can help prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. To help prevent high cholesterol, you can:

  • Eat a low-salt diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Limit the amount of animal fats and use good fats in moderation
  • Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise on most days of the week for at least 30 minutes
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Manage stress
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