And while we're on the topic, do you know when you last had your levels checked?

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is important at all phases of life, since this lowers your chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke later on. And, as with every other aspect of your health, understanding exactly what healthy cholesterol levels really are—and the various cholesterol types that inform them—will ultimately help you make better choices for your body, now and always. To do so, you'll first need to grasp the difference between good and bad cholesterol. Ahead, Cheryl Anderson, professor and interim chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, breaks down everything you need to know.

Understanding the Differences Between Good and Bad Cholesterol

According to Anderson, who is also the chair of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, "low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is considered the 'bad' cholesterol because it contributes to fatty buildup in arteries, which increases the risk of things like heart attack and stroke," she explains. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, on the other hand, is thought of as the 'good' cholesterol—"because it can work to break down LDL cholesterol," adds Anderson. Another categorically bad type? Triglycerides, which are the most common type of fat in your body—they can also contribute to fatty buildup within arteries. When your cholesterol levels are measured, doctors look at the total summation of the values—but it's just as important to understand where you fall within each individual category, as well (having a higher HDL value, for example, would be a good thing!).

Establishing Regular Checks

The American Heart Association recommends that after age 20, adults without other risk factors or family history of heart disease get their cholesterol checked every four to six years, as long as risk remains low. Risk factors might include age, smoking, or high blood pressure. Anderson says, "If you have risk factors that can contribute to higher cholesterol levels, it's important to work with your doctor to address lifestyle changes, and potential use of statin medications to help manage this."

Maintaining Healthy Levels

"An active lifestyle and healthy eating pattern that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, and fish is a great way to keep healthy cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke," explains Anderson. However, she points out that family history has a big impact on cholesterol levels—and that managing cholesterol is something each patient should discuss with his or her doctor.


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