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August 30, 2013

Cholesterol: What those numbers, letters mean

September is Cholesterol Awareness Month. Cholesterol is a fat that is produced in the body, by the liver, or that comes from the foods we eat, specifically animal products. In itself, cholesterol is not bad, and has several functions in the body, such as building and maintaining cell membranes, and helping to convert sunlight to vitamin D.

There are, however, two types of cholesterol (HDL and LDL), and it’s important to know about them, and understand how cholesterol is associated with risk for heart attack and stroke.

Low density lipoprotein, or LDL, carries cholesterol from the liver to cells. When cells cannot use it all, there may be a buildup that increases the risk of arterial blockage.

So, when you get tested for cholesterol, what do the numbers on your test mean?

Less than 100 mg/dL is considered optimal, 130 is borderline high, and 160 is high.

So-called “good” cholesterol (HDL is high density lipoprotein) seems to protect people against heart attacks. Low levels of HDL (40 mg/dL, or less, for men and 50 mg/dL, or less, for women) seem to indicate a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. HDL takes the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver, where it is broken down as waste and eliminated. Levels of 60 mg/dL or higher are desirable, and considered to be protective against heart attacks.

A total cholesterol reading of 200 mg/dL or less is desirable. Total cholesterol is HDL plus LDL plus 20 percent of your triglyceride level. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body, and people who have high triglycerides combined with too much LDL and too little HDL are at risk for coronary artery disease and diabetes. If your triglyceride levels are high, and your cholesterol levels are not appropriate, your doctor may advise a lifestyle change that includes exercise and eating a better diet.

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