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Understanding Your Cholesterol Numbers

Cross section of artery showing blood flow.
Blood flows easily when arteries are clear.

Cross section of artery showing plaque buildup and restricted blood flow.
Less blood flows when cholesterol builds up in artery walls.

The higher your blood cholesterol, the greater your risk for heart attack, cardiovascular disease, or stroke. High cholesterol can cause any artery in your body to become narrowed because of plaque. Plaque is a waxy buildup of cholesterol and other substances within the artery that blocks blood flow. That’s why you need to know your cholesterol level. If it’s high, you can take steps to bring it down. Eating the right foods and getting enough exercise can help. Some people also need medicine to control their cholesterol. Your healthcare provider can help you identify your personal risk through screening tests and a discussion about different factors that may increase your chance for heart disease or stroke. These include family history, age, gender, ethnicity, and current health. Your provider may use one of several risk calculators to help estimate your risk for heart disease or stroke.  Your healthcare provider can help you get started on a plan to control your cholesterol.

Checking your cholesterol

Your cholesterol is checked with a simple blood test. The results tell you how much cholesterol you have in your blood. Get checked as often as your healthcare provider suggests. As you work to lower your cholesterol, your numbers will change slowly. But they will change. Be patient and stay on track. Discuss your numbers with your healthcare provider. 

Your total cholesterol number

A blood test will give you a number for the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. The higher this number, the more likely it is that cholesterol will build up in your blood vessels. 

My total cholesterol is: ________________

Your lipid numbers

Total cholesterol is just one part of the story. .  There are components of cholesterol that are also important called HDL and LDL. Your healthcare provider will tell you if you should fast before having your lipids checked. Fasting means you don’t eat for a certain amount of time before the test is done. Along with cholesterol, triglyceride can also lead to blocked arteries. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the bloodstream. Taken together, the triglycerides, total cholesterol, and HDL and LDL cholesterol are called lipids. Knowing your HDL, LDL, and triglyceride numbers, as well as your total cholesterol gives you a more complete picture of your lipid levels:

  • HDL is called the “good” cholesterol. It moves the "bad" cholesterol out of the bloodstream and does not block your blood vessels. HDL levels are affected by how much you exercise and in part by genetics and by what you eat and drink. This is the type of cholesterol that you don't want too little of. The higher the HDL, the better.

My HDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • LDL is called the “bad” cholesterol. This is because it can stick to your artery walls and contributes to plaque that blocks blood flow. LDL levels are most affected by what you eat and by your genes.  Higher levels of these cholesterol types can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.

My LDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • Triglyceride is a type of fat the body uses to store energy. Too much triglyceride can increase your risk for heart disease.

My triglyceride is:  ________________

High cholesterol is only one of the risk factors for heart disease heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. If your cholesterol levels are higher than normal, your healthcare provider will help you with steps to take to lower your levels. Steps may include lifestyle changes such as diet, physical activity, and quitting smoking. Your provider may also prescribe medicine to lower bad cholesterol levels. Based on your other health issues and risk factors, your healthcare provider may have specific goals for treating your cholesterol. You may need to use different kinds of medicines that work on the different types of cholesterol.

Some people may need to take medicines called statins to control their cholesterol. This is in addition to eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Statins can help you stay healthy. They can also help prevent a heart attack or stroke. Also ask your provider about any side effects your medicines may cause. Let your provider know about any side effects you have. Ask your provider how often you need to have your cholesterol checked.

Work with your provider to know and understand what your cholesterol numbers mean, what your risk factors are and what are your treatment options and goals. Make sure you understand why these goals are important, based on your own health history and your family history of heart disease or high cholesterol. Stick with your treatment plan to reach the goals you set.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/1/2020
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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