Cholesterol Glossary

The following are definitions of terms commonly used in discussions of cholesterol and cardiovascular health:

Atherosclerosis: The deposition of fatty plaques upon the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. These plaques can block the flow of blood and cause a heart attack. Although doctors still don't know exactly why it occurs, having a high blood cholesterol level is thought to be a contributing factor.

LDL: Low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol often implicated in the development of atherosclerosis.

HDL: High-density lipoprotein, the "good" cholesterol thought to protect against atherosclerosis.

Triglycerides: Another type of fatty acid found in the blood that doctors measure when they evaluate heart-disease risk.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 700,000 Americans each year.

The heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. Like any muscle, the heart requires a steady, plentiful blood supply to thrive. Heart attacks happen when the arteries that deliver blood to the heart become blocked. Starved of the oxygen and nutrients carried in the blood, heart cells die. If you don't receive swift medical attention, so will you.

The heart's arteries, better known as the coronary arteries, can become narrowed or even completely blocked by a buildup called plaque, which is made up of excess cholesterol and other bits of detritus floating in the blood. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance found naturally in animal products, such as meat and dairy foods. The human body requires a certain amount of cholesterol to form hormones and vitamin D, among other things. Indeed, it's so important that the body can make all the cholesterol it needs.

An overabundance of cholesterol in the body, however, can result in high levels in the blood, where it can add to the plaque on artery walls. Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes plaque to form, but there is no question that having high blood cholesterol is a major cause of heart attacks. In this article, we'll talk about what those cholesterol numbers mean and steps you can take to help get your cholesterol under control.

Facts Of The Heart

The risk to your heart is affected not only by the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, but also by how it is packaged. It's well known that water and oil don't mix. The same is true for blood, a watery substance, and cholesterol, an oily one. For cholesterol to move through the blood, it must be packaged with protein into a molecule called a lipoprotein. There are two primary types of lipoproteins, high-density and low-density.

High-density lipoproteins (or HDLs) are considered the "good" form of cholesterol because they help shuttle excess cholesterol out of the body.

Low-density lipoproteins (or LDLs), in contrast, tend to deposit their cholesterol into plaque, where it hinders blood flow. So the more of your total blood cholesterol that's packaged as HDLs, the better for your arteries and heart; the more that's bundled in LDLs, the greater danger to your heart. The levels of LDLs and HDLs in your blood can be determined through a blood test, as your total cholesterol level can, and it's important you get this additional information if you've been told you have high blood cholesterol. 

Some other major risk factors for cardiovascular disease -- in addition to high total and high LDL cholesterol levels -- include heredity, increasing age (55 percent of all heart attack victims are 65 or older, 45 percent are under 65 years of age, and 5 percent are under 40), and being male (although after menopause, a woman's risk rises to almost equal that of a man). But while there's nothing you can do about your genes, gender, or age, you can control your cholesterol. Doctors can prescribe powerful drugs, including a class called statins, which produce dramatic reductions in blood cholesterol.

What Do Cholesterol Numbers Mean?

So you've had the blood test and received your lipoprotein profile. But what do all those numbers mean? Only your doctor can say for sure.

Below you'll find guidelines established in 2001 by the National Cholesterol Education Program, a part of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (All measurements are in milligrams per deciliter of blood.) But these guidelines provide only a general view. What your numbers mean in terms of your heart-disease risk and your treatment options and goals depend on whether you already have heart disease or have any other risk factors for it. In addition to risky cholesterol numbers, other risk factors for heart disease include:

  • previous heart attack
  • increasing age (risk rises with age)
  • gender (men have a higher risk than women, although women's risk begins to increase at menopause)
  • family history (your risk is increased if you have/had a close male relative who developed heart disease before age 55 or a female relative before age 65)
  • cigarette smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • overweight (the more excess body fat, the greater the risk)
  • physical inactivity

Total CholesterolOptimal: Less than 200Borderline high risk: 200 to 239High risk: 240 and aboveLDL CholesterolOptimal: Less than 100Near or above optimal: 100 to 129Borderline high: 130 to 159High risk: 160 to 189Very high risk: 190 or aboveHDL CholesterolOptimal: 60 and above

Acceptable: 40 to 59

Higher risk: Less than 40

Triglycerides

Optimal: Less than 150

Borderline high risk: 150 to 199

High risk: 200 to 499

Very high risk: 500 or above

Now that you know how to interpret your blood cholesterol rating, you have enough information to begin making decisions about how to bring that number down. Let's review some various home remedies to reduce high cholesterol in the next section.

To learn more about heart disease and home remedies to treat heart problems, visit these links:

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.