5 must-know facts about cholesterol; Test your smarts

February is Heart Month and it serves as a reminder that we need to pay attention to our heart health. Part of keeping your heart healthy is keeping tabs on your cholesterol. Do you know what you should about cholesterol: How to keep it at a healthy level to help prevent heart disease?

These 5 must-know facts about cholesterol can help you get started.

1. Your body needs cholesterol. "This waxy substance is found in every cell in the body and aids in many vital functions, including digestion and hormone and vitamin D production," says Harvey Hahn, MD, a Kettering Physician Network cardiologist. "Cholesterol can cause problems when your body has too much of it, though. It can build up in arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke."

2. There are good and bad types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, are the bad cholesterol. The higher the level of LDL in your blood, the higher your risk of heart disease.

High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are known as the good cholesterol. HDL is beneficial because it carries cholesterol from other parts of the body to the liver, where it can be removed. Higher levels of HDL mean you have a lower chance of getting heart disease.

3. Testing is the only way to know if your cholesterol levels are within a healthy range. "There are no signs or symptoms that let you know if your cholesterol levels are not what they should be — that is why high cholesterol is known as a silent killer," Dr. Hahn explains. "But a simple blood test can let you know where you stand."

4. Even young people should keep tabs on their cholesterol levels. Unhealthy cholesterol is not a problem just for older adults.

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone 20 years and older who has not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease have his or her cholesterol levels checked at least every four to six years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teens have their cholesterol tested once between the ages of 9 and 11 and again between the ages of 17 and 21.

5. To help control your cholesterol, cut down on foods high in saturated and trans fats. These foods include fatty meats, baked goods (like cookies and cakes), and whole-milk dairy products and solid fats, such as butter.

Next, add some foods that can help balance cholesterol. These foods include avocadoes ground flaxseed, oatmeal, olive oil, salmon (or other fatty fish, such as herring, lake trout, sardines and tuna), and walnuts.

Dr. Hahn advises that getting plenty of exercise, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking are important ways to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

Kettering Health Network is a faith-based, not-for-profit healthcare system. The network has eight hospitals: Grandview, Kettering, Sycamore, Southview, Greene Memorial, Fort Hamilton, Kettering Behavioral Health and Soin.

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