Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance that your body needs to function normally. Cholesterol is naturally present in cell walls or membranes everywhere in the body, including the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, liver, intestines, and heart.

Your body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat. It takes only a small amount of cholesterol in the blood to meet these needs. If you have too much cholesterol in your bloodstream, the excess may be deposited in arteries, including the coronary (heart) arteries, where it contributes to the narrowing and blockages that cause the signs and symptoms of heart disease.

At normal levels, cholesterol is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s an essential raw material used by the body to build cell walls and produce hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. The body produces its own supply of cholesterol in the liver, and it’s found naturally in all animal products (such as meats, eggs, milk, and cheese). It poses a problem only when the body is unable to use or eliminate excessive supplies.

Cholesterol levels begin increasing for both men and women as age goes up. Women generally have a lower level than men do between the age of 50 and 55. However, once a woman starts into menopause, the natural occurrence is that the cholesterol level starts to increase.

Causes of High Cholesterol

The tendency to build up high cholesterol may run in families, but excessively high levels are usually the result of a poor diet high in saturated fats and calories, combined with little or no exercise. In some cases, an elevated cholesterol level may be associated with an undiagnosed medical condition, such as hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) or diabetes.

Excess weight tends to increase you LDL (bad) cholesterol level. If you are overweight and have high cholesterol levels, losing weight may help you lower it. Weight loss also helps to lower triglyceride levels as well as raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol rarely causes symptoms. It is usually detected during a routine blood test that measures cholesterol levels (see the Exams and Tests section). You may first discover it when you are diagnosed with a condition that is caused in part by high cholesterol, such as coronary artery disease, stroke, or peripheral vascular disease.

Alcohol is “good” because it increases HDL cholesterol (the good one). However, it does not decrease the bad or HDL cholesterol. Plus, drinking too much alcohol damages the liver and heart muscle, leads to high blood pressure and raises triglyceride levels.

Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol (ie more than three to four units per day for men and two to three units per day for women).

Women get a natural boost in their HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) from their hormones until they reach menopause. After menopause, taking estrogen can help maintain higher HDL cholesterol levels.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol transports cholesterol throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.

Your chances of a heart attack rise dramatically when your cholesterol gets even moderately out of line. Generally speaking, a man with a total blood cholesterol level of 240 is twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as a man with a level of 200, all other factors being equal. A level of 300 carries five times the risk.

Age and gender–Cholesterol levels begin to increase in both men and women beginning around 20 years of age. Premenopausal women usually have lower levels of cholesterol when compared with men of the same age. After menopause, a woman’s LDL cholesterol level typically goes up, as does her risk for heart disease.

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