What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood. You need some cholesterol to be healthy, but too much can build up in your arteries and may cause a heart attack or stroke.

Measuring Cholesterol

Total cholesterol is the amount of cholesterol in your blood. It is made up of:

  • LDL, the bad cholesterol
  • HDL, the good cholesterol
  • Triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood

Cholesterol is measured with a blood test that is ordered by your nurse or doctor. This test is sometimes called a cholesterol panel or a lipid panel. The lipid panel may include a non-HDL cholesterol value. The non-HDL cholesterol calculation is the total cholesterol minus the HDL cholesterol.

Your nurse or doctor will determine how often you need to have a cholesterol blood test.

Count Your Risk Factors

Cholesterol is just one risk factor for heart attack or stroke. Make sure you discuss all of your risk factors with your nurse or doctor. The more risk factors you have, the higher your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

Risk factors you can’t change:

  • Family history of early heart disease
  • Age (men 45 years or older, women 55 years or older)
  • African-American race

Risk factors you can change:

  • Smoking cigarettes or cigars
  • High blood pressure, or taking medicine for high blood pressure
  • Diabetes or high blood sugar
  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Low HDL cholesterol

A healthy diet, not smoking, regular exercise and getting closer to a healthy weight (and staying there) are good for everybody—no matter what your risk is of having a heart attack or stroke.

You have the power to make changes to improve your health. Learn more about Healthy Lifestyles to Manage Cholesterol

Who May Benefit from Taking Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?

Cholesterol-lowering medicine may be right for you if:

  • You have had a heart attack, stroke, angioplasty or stent, or heart bypass surgery due to blockages in your arteries.
  • Your LDL, the bad cholesterol, is 190 or higher.
  • You have type 2 diabetes and are between 40 and 75 years old.
  • You are between 40 and 75 years old and your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years is above a certain level.
  • Your nurse or doctor will review your health factors to determine your risk.
  • In some cases, medicine may be the right plan for you even if you are not in one of these groups. You can talk to your nurse or doctor to discuss if medicine is a good choice for you.

Learn more about cholesterol lowering medicines

Cholesterol-Lowering Medicines

Sometimes diet and exercise are not enough to improve your cholesterol. When this happens, your nurse or doctor may prescribe a medicine.

Helpful Tips in Lowering Cholesterol

  • There are many types of medicines used to treat cholesterol. Ask your nurse or doctor to explain how your medicines work.
  • Some people need more than one cholesterol medicine to reach their goals.
  • Find out if there are side effects that you should know about.
  • Ask if you have any concerns about how your medicines work together.
  • Let you nurse or doctor know if you have concerns about the cost of your medicines.

Get the most out of your medicines. After 4-6 weeks of taking cholesterol medicines, your nurse or doctor may order blood tests. These tests make sure the medicines are working and are safe.

Healthy Lifestyle to Manage Cholesterol

Tips to Manage Your Cholesterol

  • Stop smoking. Some options include:
    • Ask your nurse or doctor for help
    • Visit smokefree.gov
    • Call the tobacco quit line, 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669)
  • Eat healthy foods.
    • Choose vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats.
    • Limit sugary drinks.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. Even losing 5 to 10 pounds can make a big difference.
  • Get moving and stay active!

How to Create A Healthy Plate

When you choose healthy foods, you can help make all your cholesterol numbers better. Turns out that what is good for your cholesterol is also good for your blood pressure. The right choices can help you be healthier.

Nutrition information can be confusing. Here are some reliable resources:

Plan for Healthy Eating

  • Eat several servings of vegetables and fruit every day. Try to include a variety of colors.
  • Choose fiber-rich whole grains. Look for foods like whole wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal.
  • Eat fish at least 2 times a week. Choose fatty fish like salmon, sardines and trout.
  • Eat healthy fats:
    • Choose good fats such as those in foods like fatty fish, vegetable oils, avocados and nuts.
    • Limit bad saturated fats found in foods like fatty meats, whole milk, butter, ice cream and cheese.
    • Don’t eat trans fats found in foods that include baked goods, snack foods and fast foods.
  • Limit soda, sports drinks, fruit juices and alcohol. Drink water, skim milk or low-fat milk instead.
  • Cut down on calories, salt, added sugars and portion sizes. This is even more important if you are overweight, have high blood pressure or have high blood sugar.
  • Record what you eat and drink on a paper log or smart phone app, even for just a few days. This is one of the best ways to stay on track.

Watch Your Weight

Losing weight helps lower your LDL, the bad cholesterol, and triglycerides. It can also raise your HDL, the good cholesterol. Weight loss may also lower blood pressure and blood sugar. These changes can lead to a healthier heart and brain.

Aim for a Healthy Weight

Ask your nurse, doctor, or dietitian what a healthy weight is for you. Each and every pound you lose is a step in the right direction.

Tips for Losing Weight

  1. Step on a scale at least once a week to keep track of your weight. Write it down.
  2. Fill up on fiber-rich foods like oats, beans, vegetables and fruits. Try to eat a vegetable or fruit at every meal.
  3. Start your day with breakfast. Don’t skip it!
  4. Eat smaller portions by using smaller plates. Share meals when eating out.
  5. Limit alcohol and sugary drinks to reduce calories.
  6. Save sweets for special occasions.
  7. Include activity most days. The more you move, the more you lose.
  8. It may take up to 60 to 90 minutes of activity during your day to lose weight.
  9. Write down or use a smartphone app to track your food and activity choices.

Get Moving

The more active you are, the more you can improve your cholesterol and other risk factors. Activity helps prevent heart attack and stroke by:

  • Burning calories to help you lose weight
  • Lowering your blood pressure
  • Lowering your blood sugar
  • Reducing stress, depression and anxiety

Being more active also improves strength, balance, fitness and gives you more energy.

Your Activity Plan

  1. Choose an activity that you like. Walk, bike, swim, dance or hike most days.
  2. Warm up and stretch before you are active.
  3. Perform your activity at a comfortable pace.
  4. Aim for 30-60 minutes of activity each day. You can break it up into 10-15 minutes at a time.
  5. Some activity is better than none!
  6. Take time to cool down and stretch after you are active.
  7. Use a pedometer, activity tracker or smartphone app to see how much exercise you are getting each day.

Disclaimer: While PCNA strives to provide reliable, up-to-date health information, this and other PCNA education materials are for informational purposes only and not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Only your healthcare provider can diagnose and treat a medical problem.