Diagnosed with high cholesterol; What does that mean?

Matthew Mullen, FNP

Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance found in all parts of your body; it helps your body make cell membranes, many hormones, and vitamin D. The cholesterol in your blood comes from two sources: your liver, which makes all the cholesterol your body needs, and the food you eat (from animal sources such as meat and dairy).

Cholesterol isn’t entirely bad. Cholesterol and other fats are carried in your bloodstream as spherical particles called lipoproteins. The two most commonly known lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

The trouble starts when you have too much LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which causes a substance called plaque to collect in your blood vessels. This buildup puts you at risk for heart attack and stroke.

You want your LDL to be low, and if you’ve been told you have high cholesterol, you need to take steps to decrease your LDL, including:

  • Don’t eat foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fat, such as red meat, fried foods, cheese, or butter
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, and nontropical vegetable oils
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Stop smoking, if you smoke

If you’re struggling to lower your LDL, there may be other factors at play:

  • If you have family members with high cholesterol, you’re more prone to unhealthy levels. Your genetics may make it harder for your body to remove LDL cholesterol from your blood or break it down in your liver.
  • Your body’s metabolism changes with age. While normal, these changes make it more difficult for your liver to get rid of LDL cholesterol. This helps explain why high cholesterol is often diagnosed between ages 40 and 59.
  • Women have a lower risk for high cholesterol than men — until menopause. Menopause lowers hormones that may protect against high cholesterol.
  • Sitting a lot and not getting a lot of exercise lowers HDL cholesterol. This “good” cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol away from arteries. With less HDL, it’s easier for LDL to build up in your blood vessels.
  • Some prescriptions, such as steroids used to treat inflammatory diseases, can unintentionally cause unhealthy cholesterol levels.

If you’ve been told to lower your cholesterol, talk to your health team about sustainable lifestyle changes, or other strategies including medication, to help reduce your LDL. Together, with your provider, you can personalize your approach for cholesterol success.

Matthew Mullen, FNP is a primary care provider with Barton Community Health Center. February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States — focusing on your heart health has never been more important. For information about local health care services, including primary care and cardiology, visit

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