Your diet, family genetics and lifestyle can all play a part, but how do you know if your cholesterol levels are healthy? With new research questioning the truth behind ‘bad cholesterol’ and myths surrounding ‘high cholesterol’ food, we ask Vitality’s Head of Clinical Services, GP Dr Dawn Richards, to explain all…

I’ve been told my cholesterol level is high – am I going to have a heart attack?

The link isn’t that straightforward. Firstly, your total cholesterol level matters less than the balance between high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which carries cholesterol away from the cells, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the unhealthy form of cholesterol.

So, if your overall level is fairly high, but you have more of the good HDL cholesterol, that’s positive. And cholesterol is just one factor. If you’re slim, fit and healthy but your cholesterol is on the high side, there’s probably no reason to panic. If, on the other hand, your cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood) are very elevated and you’re also overweight, you need to take it seriously. Your doctor will be able to advise you.

So, what exactly is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance needed for the normal functioning of your body. Cholesterol is made in the liver, although some is found in foods. While cholesterol is a crucial substance, having too much in your blood stream can lead to a ‘furring up’ of the arteries. This is known as atherosclerosis and can restrict the flow of blood and oxygen to the vital organs, increasing your risk of angina, heart attack or stroke.

What’s the difference between good and bad cholesterol?

Cholesterol is carried around your body by proteins, and the combined cholesterol and proteins are called lipoproteins.

The unhealthy form of cholesterol is called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and can cause fatty material to stick to your artery walls. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), on the other hand, carries cholesterol away and takes it to the liver to be broken down, so this is considered a good type of cholesterol.

How can I keep my cholesterol levels healthy?

Cholesterol levels rise naturally with age, but there’s a lot you can do to keep yours low. Keep saturated fats, found in red meat and dairy products, to a minimum. As a general rule, have lean meat and poultry with the skin removed, and choose low-fat dairy. You should also avoid trans fats, found in some processed foods (always check the labels). Fibre helps reduce the absorption of fat from the gut, so include plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, such as oats.

Do I need to eat fewer eggs?

Dietary cholesterol, found in foods including eggs and shellfish, actually has little affect on blood cholesterol levels, so there’s no need to avoid it, unless your doctor has advised you to. If your cholesterol is already raised, you may be prescribed a medicine called a statin to lower cholesterol.

Can high cholesterol run in the family?

In the genetic condition familial hyphercholesterolemia (FH), cholesterol levels are higher than normal from birth, which puts people with FH at a higher risk of heart disease from a younger age than usual. So, if a close family member had a heart attack before 50, it’s worth getting your cholesterol level checked to see if you might be at risk and need medication to lower it. That said, FH only affects around 1 in 250 people.

Should I have my cholesterol tested?

You should definitely get checked if there’s a family history of heart disease, especially at a young age (see above). But it’s a good idea for everyone to have a regular cholesterol test. Vitality members can get their checked with a Vitality Healthcheck. Even if you have no particular risk factors and have a healthy lifestyle, it’s helpful to understand where you are on the spectrum and take steps to lower cholesterol if necessary.

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