You have no doubt heard about total cholesterol level but what does it mean and what impact does the figure have on our health?
Doctors use our cholesterol test results to determine if we are at risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke or related conditions. When LDL cholesterol (also known as bad cholesterol) builds up in our arteries then this waxy substance can form a plaque which restricts blood flow. This can lead to various cardiovascular complaints including angina and heart disease. In severe cases, the flow of blood to an organ is blocked which can result in stroke or heart attack. HDL cholesterol (otherwise known as good cholesterol) is responsible for clearing out the LDL cholesterol via the liver. However, new reports show that HDL cholesterol is not always as good as we once believed.
Here’s why it matters
Your total cholesterol level is checked during a cholesterol test (which is also known as a lipid count or lipid panel). In this test, cholesterol is measured in milligrams per decilitre of blood (mg/dL). These test results alone are not what your doctor will use to predict your risk of heart disease. Your doctor will consider your whole medical history, as factors such as your family history and your age can be instrumental. If anyone in your family has a history of cardiovascular conditions then it is important to relay this information to your doctor. Your cholesterol level increases with age, so the older you are, the higher the risk. Age also increases the risk of heart disease and cholesterol-related conditions. You doctor may also ask if you smoke and measure your blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are at greater risk of developing heart disease, as are those who smoke. All of this information will give your doctor a clear indication of your risk of heart disease.
According to NHS figures, in 2011 over 50% of people over 18 had a higher than recommended cholesterol level.
Total cholesterol count levels:
The desirable range is less than 200 mg/dL
Borderline high is 200-239 mg/dL
High is 240 mg/dL or more
Your total blood (or serum) cholesterol is the total sum of your HDL level + your LDL level + 20% of your triglyceride level.
Triglycerides are a form of fats that are found in our blood. We need a certain number of triglycerides for energy and health. However, if this number is excessive then this can have a negative impact on your heart health. Your triglyceride level may vary at different stages in life, this is natural. Gender also affects triglyceride levels. If your level of triglycerides is high and you also have high LDL cholesterol then it is likely that you are at greater risk of atherosclerosis (when fatty plaque builds up on artery walls causing a restriction in blood flow).
HDL cholesterol may be low if you lead a sedentary lifestyle, are overweight, smoke, drink, have type 2 diabetes or have a family history of the cholesterol problems. With new studies showing that low HDL cholesterol is not always a good thing, then this information is not as vital as it was once considered to be.
LDL cholesterol levels should be low if you want a healthy heart. LDL number used to be the determining factor in guiding treatment to prevent strokes and heart attacks. This is no longer the case. Doctors look at all sorts of factors these days. It is still important to maintain a low LDL level but there are also other important factors at play. A high level of saturated and trans fats in your diet will increase your LDL cholesterol level.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and staying active are the best ways to keep your heart healthy. You should also avoid or limit red meat, alcohol and cigarettes. Looking after your body as a whole, seeking medical advice and attention where necessary and making sensible lifestyle choices are all fundamental to staying healthy and well.