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What is high cholesterol?

Robert S. Kaufmann, MD
Internal Medicine
Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy compound found in the blood and body tissue. The body normally produces enough for its needs. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it can build up in the walls of the arteries and eventually cause the arteries to harden. If the circulation of blood through the coronary artery becomes completely blocked, a heart attack will be the result.

A change in lifestyle – such as physical activity and diet – can reduce cholesterol. A doctor can also prescribe various medications.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that builds cells and hormone, and when there is too much cholesterol in your blood, you have high cholesterol. Cholesterol can build up in your arteries, clogging and hardening them. This increases your risk for heart disease. A healthy total blood cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL, while an unhealthy total blood cholesterol level is above 240 mg/dL.

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
High cholesterol is total cholesterol above 200 mg/dL;  triglycerides above 150 mg/dL+M100; LDL (bad cholesterol) above 130 mg/dL (or above 100 mg/dL if you have other heart risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking), or low HDL (the good cholesterol that takes away plaques) which is less than 40 mg/dL in men and less than 50 mg/dL in women. If you have more than one number above normal, it's time to consider either serious dietary modification or perhaps medications.
Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine

High blood cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart disease that you can do something about. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. To prevent these disorders, all women should make a serious effort to keep their cholesterol at healthy levels.

If you already have heart disease, it is particularly important to lower an elevated blood cholesterol level to reduce your high risk for a heart attack. Women with diabetes also are at especially high risk for a heart attack. If you have diabetes, you will need to take steps to keep both your cholesterol and your diabetes under control.

Although young women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than young men, between the ages of 45 and 55, women's levels begin to rise higher than men's. After age 55, this "cholesterol gap" between women and men becomes still wider. Although women's overall risk of heart disease at older ages continues to be somewhat lower than that of men, the higher a woman's blood cholesterol level, the greater her chances of developing heart disease.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Blood cholesterol is a substance created and used by our bodies. There’s the bad type, LDL, which has a nasty but deserved reputation of clogging arteries and increasing the risk for heart attacks. On the other hand, there's good cholesterol, HDL, which helps keep bad cholesterol from getting lodged in the artery walls.

A cholesterol test measures total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. A total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or more is considered high. LDL or bad cholesterol levels of 130-159 mg/dL are considered borderline high, and anything above that indicates an increased risk for heart disease. An HDL reading of less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women is considered undesirable. (When it comes to HDL, the higher the better.) For triglycerides, 150-199 mg/dL is considered borderline high.

If you have high bad cholesterol you may be at increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Speak to your doctor about lifestyle modifications and medications that can help get your blood cholesterol to a more acceptable level.

High blood cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart disease that you can do something about. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attacks. To prevent these disorders, all women should make a serious effort to keep their cholesterol at healthy levels.

If you already have heart disease, it is particularly important to lower an elevated blood cholesterol level to reduce your high risk for a heart attack. Women with diabetes also are at especially high risk for a heart attack. If you have diabetes, you will need to take steps to keep both your cholesterol and your diabetes under control.

Although young women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than young men, between the ages of 45 and 55, women's levels begin to rise higher than men's. After age 55, this "cholesterol gap" between women and men becomes still wider. Although women's overall risk of heart disease at older ages continues to be somewhat lower than that of men, the higher a woman's blood cholesterol level, the greater her chances of developing heart disease.

This answer is based on source information from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

People use the term "high cholesterol" to describe several different conditions:
  • High total cholesterol
  • High low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (bad cholesterol)
  • Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (good cholesterol)
  • High triglycerides (fatty substances in the blood)
Each of these conditions is a risk factor for heart disease.
First off, cholesterol is a molecule that is required to stabilize cell walls in animals. As such we need a certain amount of cholesterol in our bodies to live. Cholesterol is both made from smaller molecules in our body and is ingested. With that said, having high cholesterol is generally means having a high level of low-density lipoproteins (LDL). These lipoproteins are used to transfer fats and cholesterol throughout the body. Having an LDL of greater than 200 is indicative of having high cholesterol and puts you at risk for developing cardiovascular disease and other disease processes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.