If you’ve ever had a cholesterol test, you’ve probably seen your doctor look concerned when your “bad” LDL cholesterol was too high. Most of us think high cholesterol = heart attack. But what does having high cholesterol really mean for your health? I’ve dealt with this issue personally, so I wanted to share some things I’ve learned after my own high cholesterol diagnosis.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found naturally in your body that your liver makes to perform important jobs like building cells and producing hormones. We need some cholesterol to function normally. There are a few different types:
For most adults, the ideal cholesterol numbers are:
If your cholesterol is higher than these levels, your doctor may say you have high cholesterol or hyperlipidemia. That was my diagnosis a few years ago at my annual checkup when my total and LDL cholesterol were borderline high.
High cholesterol can be caused by a mix of factors:
So in my case, my high-ish cholesterol is likely due to a combination of indulging in biscuits & gravy too often, not getting enough cardio exercise, and my genes.
Because high LDL cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries over time and raise heart attack risks, it seems very alarming. However, newer research is finding that having high cholesterol alone doesn’t necessarily doom you to heart disease.
It turns out cholesterol levels alone aren’t the best predictor of cardiovascular problems on their own. Some people can have total cholesterol over 250 and still maintain healthy arteries and live long lives. Other bigger risk factors like smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure can also impact your overall heart health.
That being said, I still take my high cholesterol seriously. But I no longer think having a high total cholesterol number alone means I’m definitely going to have a heart attack soon. As part of my overall health, it’s something I want to improve through lifestyle changes and monitor with my doctor. But it doesn’t mean automatic catastrophe either.
The good news is high cholesterol can often be lowered through natural means like:
Within 3-6 months of making these changes, I was able to get my total and LDL cholesterol down to normal ranges! Through lifestyle alone, you can often improve your cholesterol significantly.
If cholesterol remains high after making diet and exercise changes, your doctor may prescribe a statin medication like atorvastatin or rosuvastatin. Statins can lower LDL cholesterol by 50% or more by reducing how much your liver makes.
Some new cholesterol medications called PCSK9 inhibitors are even more effective but very expensive, so they aren’t usually the first choice.
I was nervous about taking statins after hearing about potential side effects like muscle pain. But my doctor started me on a low dose of atorvastatin, and I haven’t had any issues. Statins can be life-saving for those at high risk of heart disease. But lifestyle changes should be tried first when possible.
Not everyone with high cholesterol needs medication. Your doctor will assess your overall heart disease risk based on factors like:
My doctor did a thorough evaluation and determined my 10-year risk of heart attack was low enough to hold off on cholesterol medication for now. I'll continue rechecking my cholesterol every 6 months and may need a statin later as I age or if my numbers worsen.
Getting diagnosed with high cholesterol was scary. But learning more about what it really means for my health helped me take a more balanced view. While I'm being proactive with lifestyle changes, I no longer feel like my high cholesterol equals a heart attack destiny.
If you've been told your cholesterol is elevated, have an open discussion with your doctor about your specific risk factors. Create a personal action plan to start improving your levels through diet, activity, and possibly medication. Knowledge and prevention are powerful tools to take control of your cholesterol and your heart health!