People say what you don't know won't hurt you. That might be true for little white lies, but it's not the case when it comes to your cholesterol. It's an easy number to ignore — there are no symptoms or tell-tale signs for high cholesterol. But if you don't take action to manage elevated cholesterol levels, you could increase your risk for stroke or heart disease.
We know what you're thinking… isn't cholesterol only a concern later in life? Yes and no. Sure, your chances of having higher cholesterol increase with age, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have healthy cholesterol levels now. In fact, about 45% of women age 20 and older have high cholesterol. Yet most women have no idea what their levels are or how dangerous high cholesterol can be.
To help make sure you're in the know, we've outlined the basics of healthy (and not-so-healthy) cholesterol levels:
But first, what is cholesterol anyway?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell of your body. It's not all bad — in fact, you need cholesterol. Your body makes and absorbs it from food for important uses, such as making vitamin D and creating hormones like estrogen and progesterone. However, problems arise if you take in more cholesterol than you need.
There are two basic types of cholesterol:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein). LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, makes up most of your body's cholesterol, but extra LDL is the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein). HDL or "good" cholesterol carries some of the bad cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver, where it gets flushed out of the body.
If your LDL levels are too high or your HDL levels are too low, you end up with too much of the wrong kind of cholesterol, also called high cholesterol. Excess "bad" cholesterol sets up camp in your arteries, blocking healthy blood flow.
The dangers of high cholesterol
High cholesterol is scary for one simple reason: It greatly increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. For women, that's a big deal. Heart disease and stroke are two of the top three causes of death for women. Each year, twice as many women die from stroke as from breast cancer, and heart disease causes one out of every five female deaths.
The good news is that high cholesterol is a risk factor that can be managed and even reversed. But the first step is knowing your cholesterol numbers.
Normal cholesterol levels for women
To be on the safe side, you should get your cholesterol checked every five years beginning at age 20. Your doctor may recommend testing every year if you have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors, such as:
- Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), an inherited genetic condition
- Type 2 diabetes
A blood test called a lipoprotein panel measures cholesterol levels. The test provides information about your total cholesterol level, along with a breakdown of your LDL and HDL levels. To know whether you should be concerned, compare your test numbers to healthy levels for women:
- Total cholesterol: 125 to 200mg/dL
- LDL: Less than 100mg/dL
- HDL: 50mg/dL or higher
As you age and your estrogen levels fall, your body won't be able to clear cholesterol as well as it did when you were younger. Once you reach 55, you'll want a cholesterol test every year or two, regardless of your risk for heart disease.
If you have high cholesterol…
The goal for every woman? More HDL (good) cholesterol and less LDL (bad) cholesterol. If your cholesterol test reveals concerning levels of cholesterol, there are steps you can take to get back on the path to a healthier heart, including:
- Dietary changes: Add more fruits, vegetables, lean protein and soluble fiber to your diet. High-cholesterol foods to avoid include full-fat dairy, red meat, fried foods and baked goods.
- Medication: Your doctor can prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication. It may prevent cholesterol from forming and treat the build-up in your arteries to lower LDL cholesterol.
- Lifestyle choices: Avoid smoking and excessive drinking. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week (about 20-30 minutes each day) to lose pounds, if necessary, and maintain a healthy weight.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Need to check your cholesterol level? Make an appointment with a primary care provider.