Cholesterol is a natural substance the body creates that is found in many types of food. While cholesterol is important for many bodily functions, elevated cholesterol levels can be harmful and increase the risk of many medical conditions. Learn the difference between LDL vs. HDL cholesterol and how to lower unhealthy cholesterol below.
What Is LDL Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood, created by the liver and the foods you eat. Two lipoproteins carry your cholesterol, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is commonly referred to as bad cholesterol. LDL comprises the larger portion of your overall cholesterol count.
LDL is referred to as bad or unhealthy cholesterol because it contributes to atherosclerosis, which are fatty buildups in arteries. Atherosclerosis can increase the risk of heart attack, peripheral artery disease (PAD) and stroke because it narrows the arteries.
Approximately 54.5% of adults in the United States who could benefit from cholesterol medication are taking this medicine. Around 94 million adults in the United States 20 or older have elevated total cholesterol levels exceeding 200mg/dL.
Cholesterol won’t dissolve in your blood. Instead, proteins known as lipoproteins carry the cholesterol where it needs to go within the body. Elevated LDL cholesterol levels can increase the risk of many medical conditions, including heart disease and coronary artery disease.
Healthy cholesterol levels help the body manufacture hormones, support cell membranes, convert vitamin D in the skin and aid in digestion. Elevated LDL cholesterol levels cause cholesterol buildup in the arteries, commonly known as plaque. Over time, plaque builds up, narrowing the vessels further. Narrow vessels mean reduced blood flow to your body’s organs and heart.
Reduced blood flow can cause chest pain (angina) and increase the risk of heart attacks. Research shows higher levels of LDL are directly associated with an elevated risk for heart disease. Each year, approximately 805,000 people in the United States experience a heart attack, with 605,000 occurrences being the first heart attack.
LDL levels often rise if you eat a diet high in salt, saturated fats and cholesterol, usually found in dairy, processed foods and fatty meats. Lack of exercise, weight, tobacco and alcohol use, genetics, medications and existing health conditions may also raise the risk of high LDL levels.
What Is HDL Cholesterol?
HDL cholesterol is the other type of cholesterol, commonly known as good cholesterol, because it may reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack. HDL helps carry the bad cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver.
In the liver, LDL is broken down and removed from the body. It is important to note that HDL doesn’t entirely remove LDL cholesterol. Approximately 26.6% of men and 8.5% of women have low HDL levels. Low HDL levels mean your body may not be able to transfer and remove LDL as effectively.
What Is a Healthy Level of Cholesterol?
Cholesterol levels vary by sex, weight, age and other factors. In general, the body will produce more cholesterol over time. Physicians often recommend that adults 20 years of age and older routinely have their cholesterol levels checked. Generally, medical providers classify a person’s cholesterol levels as healthy, borderline, low or high.
Cholesterol levels are also divided into total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. A blood test may also measure triglyceride and non-HDL cholesterol levels. Ideally, recommended cholesterol levels are:
- Total cholesterol: Total cholesterol measures the total amount of cholesterol present in the blood, including HDL and LDL. For men and women 19 and younger, total cholesterol levels should be less than 170mg/dL. Men and women 20 years of age and older should have total cholesterol of 125 to 200mg/dL.
- LDL cholesterol: LDL is the bad cholesterol that causes blockages and buildup in the arteries. Men and women should generally have LDL levels less than 100mg/dL.
- HDL cholesterol: HDL, the good type of cholesterol, helps remove LDL from the arteries. Men and women 19 or younger should have more than 45mg/dL. HDL for men 20 years old and older is generally recommended to be 40mg/dL or higher. Finally, women 20 years old or older should have HDL levels of 50mg/dL or higher.
- Triglycerides: While triglycerides are not a type of cholesterol, they are another type of fat found in the blood, which can raise a person’s risk of heart disease, especially in women. Despite triglycerides not being a type of cholesterol, they are often part of the lipoprotein panel that assesses cholesterol levels. Healthy triglyceride levels are generally below 150mg/dL.
- Non-HDL cholesterol: Non-HDL cholesterol levels are your total cholesterol, not including your HDL levels. Non-HDL levels include LDL cholesterol and other types of cholesterol, such as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). Men and women 19 years old and younger should have non-HDL levels less than 120mg/dL. On the other hand, men and women 20 years of age and older should have non-HDL levels less than 130mg/dL.
What You Can Do to Lower LDL Cholesterol
The difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol is that LDL cholesterol is unhealthy and can greatly increase the risk of many medical conditions. Fortunately, you can make several lifestyle changes to lower your LDL levels and lead a healthy lifestyle. Some of the most effective ways to reduce LDL include:
- Diet: Diet is one of the most effective ways to lower LDL cholesterol and promote healthy cholesterol levels. Generally, your diet should limit total fat and saturated fat intake to the daily recommended values to lower LDL levels. One rule of thumb is that only 25% to 35% of your daily caloric intake should be from dietary fats, with less than 7% of your calories coming from saturated fats. You can improve cholesterol levels by eating a balanced diet with foods that lower LDL cholesterol.
- Exercise: Exercise, especially paired with a healthy diet, can lower LDL levels and promote healthy total cholesterol. Even moderate physical activity can raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that adults get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity each week to remain healthy.
- Weight: Excess weight often contributes to higher LDL levels. While high cholesterol levels can happen to anyone regardless of weight, the American Heart Association has found that overweight people are at a higher risk of experiencing elevated LDL levels. A proper diet and exercise plan can help achieve a healthy weight and may lower LDL.
- Tobacco use: Smoking and tobacco use cause numerous health complications and increase your risk of many diseases and medical conditions. Quitting tobacco use can improve your overall HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL levels. Within a few months of quitting smoking, your body will begin to improve lung function and enhance blood flow.
- Alcohol consumption: If you consume alcohol, you should do so only in moderation. Even moderate alcohol use may negatively impact cholesterol levels. Moderate alcohol consumption for healthy adults typically means zero to two drinks a day for men and zero or one drink a day for women.
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Modern Heart and Vascular Institute in Texas is a leading provider of cardiovascular treatments and is equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic tools to assess cardiac health and diagnose heart conditions. Diagnosing a cardiac condition in its earliest states means our physicians are more likely to find an effective treatment before any long-term complications occur.
Contact the Modern Heart and Vascular team online to book an appointment and learn more about cholesterol levels and treatments. If you’d like to learn more about our practice, read our providers’ bios.
This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930.