Understanding cholesterol and heart health

man and woman in the kitchen cutting vegetables

Find out what cholesterol means to a healthy heart.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance found in your blood that your body naturally makes. You need it to build healthy cells.

You’ve probably heard about “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol”. But what does that mean? LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is the “bad” kind. It can lead to fatty build-up in the arteries, and may increase chances of suffering from a heart attack or stroke. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is the “good” kind of cholesterol and can help protect you against those things.

If your cholesterol levels get too high, it may increase your chances of developing heart disease. The good news is that cholesterol can be managed through diet, regular exercise, and prescribed medications.

Nutrition tips

Your body produces all the cholesterol you need, but eating certain foods may bring more of it to the table. These include food groups like red meat, poultry, and dairy. Other things that are high in saturated fats and oils, such as chocolate, coconut milk and cake, can contribute significantly to high cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol food usually equals higher fat. So if you can, choose healthy unsaturated fats like those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados. Rethink your diet to include more fiber, such as oatmeal or beans. Cholesterol is the proof—you are what you eat.

An active heart

When it comes to lowering cholesterol levels, activity goes a long way. Find forms of exercise you like and stick with your program. A good starting place is 150 minutes a week (about 20 minutes a day) and go from there. But don’t stress too much about the numbers—just keep on moving.

a man and a lady running


People with high cholesterol may be prescribed medications to help lower their cholesterol levels. The most common of these are called statins. By blocking specific enzymes, statins block the production of cholesterol in the liver so less of it is released into the bloodstream.

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol itself has no symptoms—it can only be detected through a blood test. So regular screenings are important for everyone. And the older you are, the more often you should get checked.

When to see the doctor

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the first cholesterol screening for an average person should happen between the ages of 9-11, and every five years after that.

NHLBI recommends cholesterol screenings by age:

  • People under 45, once every 5 years
  • Men 45-65, once every 1-2 years
  • Women 55-65, once every 1-2 years
  • People over 65, annually

How do cholesterol levels get lower or higher?

Again, diet and exercise are two proactive things you can do to keep cholesterol levels down. Certain medical conditions may also increase levels, including diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and HIV/AIDS. Additionally, some medications may raise cholesterol levels, including those for high blood pressure, cancer, and irregular heart rhythm.

Keeping it in check

There are ways to keep your cholesterol in check, and many are in your control: Don’t smoke, exercise daily, eat a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, and try to maintain a healthy weight. You can take charge of your heart health with everyday lifestyle adjustments. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cholesterol levels and management tips tailored to your lifestyle.