High Cholesterol Raises Your Risk for Heart Disease and Stroke

High Cholesterol Raises Your Risk for Heart Disease and Stroke

High Cholesterol Raises Your Risk for Heart Disease and Stroke

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Millions of Americans have high cholesterol, which can clog blood vessels and lead to serious health problems. People with high total cholesterol are at higher risk for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the U.S.

Along with family history, unhealthy diet, weight gain and lack of exercise are contributing factors for most people with high cholesterol.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is the fatty substance in your blood that latches on to particles called lipoproteins. “Lipo” means “fat” or “fatty.”

Doctors test the blood for three main types:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) — this is the “good” kind. HDL helps take cholesterol out of your body. It gives your arteries a better chance of being unaffected.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — this is the “bad” kind. LDL is the main type of harmful cholesterol. It can build up and block the arteries. Your risk for heart attack or stroke rises as your LDL level rises.
  • Triglycerides — this is another bad fat. High levels are often found with other heart disease risk factors.

Your total cholesterol is a blend of the three. A higher total means a greater risk for heart disease. The aim of treatment is to boost HDL while lowering LDL and triglycerides.

Confused about what your cholesterol numbers mean? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those who are healthy and have an average risk of heart disease should aim for these levels:

  • HDL: 40 mg/dL or higher for men, 50 mg/dL or higher for women
  • LDL: 100 mg/dL or lower
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
  • Total cholesterol: About 150 mg/dL. Total cholesterol over 200 mg/dL is considered high.

However, targets for LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol vary from person to person, according to the American Heart Association. Your doctor can tell you what your ideal cholesterol numbers should be.

Keeping Your Cholesterol in Check

Here are some ways to help manage cholesterol:

  • If you’re overweight, make an effort to shed excess pounds.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Avoid saturated fat. It is found in meats, whole milk dairy products and many prepared foods.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol intake.
  • Quit smoking.

If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend medicine along with these changes. You and your doctor will decide whether you need medicine by checking your test results and all your other risk factors.

If you do need medicine, be aware that your health plan may not cover all brand name drugs. To try to keep your costs lower, ask if a generic version of a prescribed drug is available. It's also a good idea to check the drug list for your health plan to see what cholesterol drugs are covered and share that information with your doctor.

Getting your recommended screenings is an important part of managing your cholesterol. You can take advantage of some important health screenings available at no cost when services are provided by a network provider.*

Family History Can Be Critical

Some people have a family tie to a severe form of high cholesterol. The American Heart Association says this inherited condition affects 1 in 200 adults in the United States.

People with this condition have high cholesterol from birth but may have no symptoms until they have already developed serious heart problems. If left untreated, people with the condition have 20 times higher than average risk of developing heart disease.

Inherited conditions like this show the value of knowing your family medical history and sharing it with your doctor.

*Preventive services at no cost applies only to members enrolled in non-grandfathered health plans. You may have to pay all or part of the cost of preventive care if your health plan is grandfathered. To find out whether your plan is grandfathered or non-grandfathered, call the customer service number on your BCBSNM member ID card.
Sources: About Cholesterol, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2024; High Cholesterol Facts, leaving site icon CDC, 2024; Preventing High Cholesterol, leaving site icon CDC; 2024; Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH), leaving site icon American Heart Association, 2024; Cholesterol test, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2024

Originally published 2/12/2020; Revised 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024