Cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) and is an essential nutrient your body needs for many important functions, such as producing new cells. If you eat too many foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol or you have an inherited condition, the cholesterol levels in your blood may climb to unhealthy levels. This increases your risk for hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, and can lead to life-threatening illnesses, such as coronary disease, heart attack, or stroke.
High cholesterol rarely causes symptoms. It is usually detected during a routine blood test that measures cholesterol levels. 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 or stroke.
There are two basic ways of lowering your high cholesterol. The first is to modify your lifestyle by changing your diet, managing your weight, increasing exercise, and quitting smoking. The other is to use one or more cholesterol-lowering medications while modifying your lifestyle. Both treatment methods are aimed at lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol, lowering triglycerides, and reducing other risk factors for heart disease.
The GOAL of lowering your cholesterol is to reduce your risk of developing coronary artery disease (CAD), heart attach, stroke, and other disorders caused by atherosclerosis. Treatment is even more critical for those who already have coronary artery disease or diabetes or those who have had a heart attach or stroke. Treatment will depend on whether you need primary or secondary prevention. Primary prevention means reducing your risk of developing CAD. Secondary prevention is reducing your risk for further complications of CAD when you already have it of if you have another condition equally as serious. People who have more than a 20% chance of developing CAD over the next ten years or who already have CAD need to seriously consider aggressive treatment for all of their risk factors for heart disease and stroke. These people are considered to be in the highest risk category and usually need to reduce their cholesterol to a level lower than those at a lesser risk.
Those at high risk for CAD or who already have CAD are likely to have a greater benefit from medications to lower their cholesterol than those who have a lesser risk. Evidence shows that medications called statins are the most effective type if treatment for reducing cholesterol and the risk for heart attach, stroke, and death in people at high risk for CAD, lifestyle changes are more appropriate and cost-effective.