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JODY HOLTON — What is cholesterol and what do those numbers mean?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by your body and found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly, but having too much (high cholesterol) puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke.

The extra cholesterol that isn’t used by your body builds up in blood vessel walls, causing blockages. These risks only increase over time, especially for adults who are not taking action to reduce their cholesterol buildup. And the numbers do not have to be astronomically high for these things to happen.

Many times, unless genetics are involved, simple changes in diet and adding regular exercise can bring elevated levels down to normal levels.

Cholesterol levels vary by age, weight and gender. Over time, a person’s body tends to produce more cholesterol. All adults should check their cholesterol levels regularly, ideally about every 4 to 6 years.

Some people, such as people who have heart disease or diabetes or who have a family history of high cholesterol, need to get their cholesterol checked more often.

Cholesterol is measured in three categories: total cholesterol, LDL, or “bad cholesterol”, HDL, or “good cholesterol.”

Total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered desirable for adults. A reading between 200 and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline high and a reading of 240 mg/dL and above is considered high.

LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL. Levels of 100 to 129 mg/dL are acceptable for people with no health issues but may be of more concern for those with heart disease or heart disease risk factors. A reading of 130 to 159 mg/dL is borderline high and 160 to 189 mg/dL is high. A reading of 190 mg/dL or higher is considered very high.

HDL levels should be kept higher. A reading of less than 40 mg/dL is considered a major risk factor for heart disease. A reading from 41 mg/dL to 59 mg/dL is considered borderline low.

The optimal reading for HDL levels is of 60 mg/dL or higher. Good is, less than 200, HDL-40 or higher, LDL less than 100, and Triglycerides less than 149.

The struggle for most people is balancing these levels. While total and LDL cholesterol levels should be kept low, having more HDL cholesterol can offer some protection against a person developing heart-related illnesses including heart attacks and strokes.

Cholesterol levels tend to increase with age. Doctors recommend taking steps earlier in life to prevent dangerously high levels of cholesterol developing as a person ages. Years of unmanaged cholesterol can be much trickier to treat.

Children are least likely to have high levels of cholesterol and only need to have their levels checked once or twice before they are 18 years old. However, if the child has risk factors for higher levels of cholesterol, they should get monitored more frequently.

Typically, men tend to have higher levels of cholesterol throughout life than women. A man’s cholesterol levels generally increase as they age.

However, women aren’t immune to high cholesterol. A woman’s cholesterol often increases when she goes through menopause.

Generally, the earlier an adult starts living a healthful lifestyle, the better for their cholesterol levels. Cholesterol levels build over time. A sudden change in lifestyle will help eventually, but the older a person is, the less impact they will see in cholesterol levels.

All adults should stay active and maintain regular exercise routines. Women going through menopause and adults with high levels of cholesterol may want to consider medication that will help reduce cholesterol levels more rapidly than diet alone.

At any age, diets low in saturated fats and trans fats and high in soluble fibers and protein are good for lowering cholesterol buildup.

So, see your doctor at least once a year, have your cholesterol levels checked, get some exercise, avoid fatty foods and high amounts of carbs. Medications may be necessary to lower cholesterol to safe levels. Take care of yourself and stay healthy, my friends.

Jody Holton writes about health for Port Arthur Newsmedia. She can be reached at jholton3@gt.rr.com.