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Maintain Healthy Cholesterol: What You Need to Know

It’s hard to keep up with all the latest health information that circles through the news. Gluten-free, vegan, plant-based, high-fat and low-carb, or is it low-fat and high-protein? Regardless of what is in the headlines, one thing stays consistent — high cholesterol isn’t good for your body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 38% of American adults have high cholesterol. Too much cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke — two of the leading causes of death in America. The good news? There are several ways you can manage, control and reduce your cholesterol levels.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is broken down into two different types: LDL and HDL, or “good” and “bad” cholesterol.

High cholesterol has no signs or symptoms, so the only way to know if yours is too high is to get it checked.

  • LDL or low-density lipoprotein is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol and makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • HDL or high-density lipoprotein is sometimes called “good” cholesterol and absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to your liver, which flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can actually lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

When your body has too much bad cholesterol, it can build up on the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called “plaque” and as it builds up, it causes the vessels to narrow. This narrowing blocks blood flow to and from your heart and other organs and can cause chest pain or a heart attack.

How Do I Know If I Have High Cholesterol?

Senior couple measuring blood pressure

High cholesterol has no signs or symptoms, so the only way to know if yours is too high is to get it checked. It’s easy: A cholesterol check or screening is a simple blood test that measures the levels of your LDL and HDL cholesterol.

Your health care provider can review your cholesterol numbers and consider your family history, age, gender and other aspects of your health to determine if you’re at risk for heart disease or stroke and whether you should take steps to reduce your levels.

When Should I Get My Cholesterol Checked?

Many people have never had their cholesterol checked, and since high cholesterol has no symptoms, they don’t know whether they’re at risk. Here is some info on when to get checked:

  • Start early in life—even children and adolescents should have it checked at least once between the ages of 9-11 and again between 17-21.
  • Get checked every five years. For most healthy adults, this is a good rule of thumb.
  • Know your risk factors. Some people, such as those with heart disease or diabetes, or who have a family history of high cholesterol should get it checked more often.

What Can I Do if I Have High Cholesterol?

Couple exercising resistance bandsGetting your cholesterol under control is done in two ways: through lifestyle changes and medication.

Lifestyle changes:

  • Get tested at least every five years. This helps you and your provider make the best choices for you.
  • Make healthy food choices. This can get confusing, so check out Understanding Fat and Cholesterol from the Veteran’s Health Library. The article breaks down info on limiting foods high in saturated and trans fats, as well as increasing foods high in fiber and unsaturated fats.
  • Be active. Physical activity can help raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of activity for adults each week. For tips on how to get started, check out Fitness Fun for the Whole Family.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. For tips on quitting, along with resources to help, check out Make a Plan You Can Stick to: Quit Smoking Today.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Even a few extra pounds can contribute to higher cholesterol. Small changes add up, so look for ways to incorporate more activity into your routine, like taking the stairs, adding a short walk to your day and more.
  • Talk with your health care provider. Ask questions and get informed on how best to manage your levels. You can ask things like:
    • Is my cholesterol under control?
    • What is a healthy weight for me?
    • When should I have it checked again?
    • Do I need medication?
  • Know your family history. If your parents or other immediate family members have high cholesterol, you should probably get tested more often.


A healthy diet and physical activity can help many people maintain or reach healthy cholesterol levels, but some people may need medicines called statins to help. Your health care provider can talk to you about whether medication is necessary for your situation. The Veteran’s Health Library offers Cholesterol Medicines to help you learn more about the different types of medication and their benefits.

To learn even more about cholesterol and how to manage it, visit the CDC’s Cholesterol page. And in the meantime, make a plan to get yours checked today!

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