That can cover many conditions, but for most people, it comes down to two well-known terms: high cholesterol and high triglycerides. Our bodies make and use a certain amount of cholesterol every day, but sometimes that system gets out of whack, either through genetics or diet. Higher levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol are associated with decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. HDL helps by removing cholesterol from your arteries, which slows the development of plaque. The “bad” LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can lead to blockages if there’s too much in the body.
Lipid is the scientific term for fats in the blood. At proper levels, lipids perform important functions in your body, but can cause health problems if they are present in excess. The term hyperlipidemia means high lipid levels. Hyperlipidemia includes several conditions, but it usually means that you have high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels.
High lipid levels can speed up a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Your arteries are normally smooth and unobstructed on the inside, but as you age, a sticky substance called plaque forms in the walls of your arteries. Plaque is made of lipids and other materials circulating in your blood. As more plaque builds up, your arteries can narrow and stiffen. Eventually, enough plaque may build up to reduce blood flow through your arteries.
Most blood tests measure levels of LDL (sometimes called “bad”) cholesterol, HDL (sometimes called “good”) cholesterol, total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL), and triglycerides. To have a low risk of heart disease, your desirable lipid levels are:
- LDL less than 130 mg/dL
- HDL greater than 40 mg/dL (men) or 50 mg/dL (women)
- Total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL
- Triglycerides less than 200 mg/dL
Some experts believe that even lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels may be desirable.