The Importance of Reaching Your Target Cholesterol Levels

It could have life-saving effects.

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When your doctor tells you that your cholesterol levels are too high, you might think, “Well, I feel fine.” That’s because high cholesterol on its own doesn’t necessarily cause symptoms. However, reaching target cholesterol levels is an investment in your long-term health. After all, high cholesterol can take a toll on your health.

The Health Risks of High Cholesterol

High cholesterol is a significant risk factor for heart disease, particularly a subtype called atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD). This can then increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes.

When you have too much LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in your body, it builds up in your blood vessels. Here, it hardens and forms plaque, which narrows and hardens the arteries. This process is known as atherosclerosis. It can partially or completely block blood flow to the heart (a heart attack) or the brain (a stroke).

“When we think about atherosclerotic heart disease, we're specifically looking at the blood vessels that are supplying blood to the heart muscle,” says Lawrence Phillips, MD, cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. “The reason that's important is because when you have narrowing in those blood vessels, you're at an increased risk of having symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, but also of having problems, such as heart attack.”

Keep in mind that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. That means managing your cholesterol levels may be an important tool in mitigating your risk of these common problems.

Understanding Target Levels

“It's important to reduce your cholesterol when you're at high risk because it's going to decrease your risk of having a stroke or a heart attack,” says Dr. Phillips. “We need to make sure that when people are looking at their high cholesterol, that they're learning the risks over the long term and seeing the benefit that comes from aggressively treating it early on.”

There is not a defined “perfect” cholesterol level, but in general, your total cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). More specifically, your LDL level should be at or below 100 mg/dL.

If your doctor is concerned about your cholesterol profile, you have many ways to reach your target cholesterol levels. This may start with heart-healthy lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Reducing intake of saturated fat
  • Eliminating intake of trans fats
  • Exercising regularly

Additionally, there are many effective medicines that can help lower LDL cholesterol. The most common treatment for high cholesterol is statin therapy.

“A statin medication impacts the way that cholesterol is produced by the liver, and can be beneficial by reducing your cholesterol almost 50 percent,” says Dr. Phillips. Your doctor may recommend statins or other medicines if lifestyle changes aren’t enough to reach your target cholesterol levels.

“We have lots of medications that can be used with different classes that will impact and lower your cholesterol, [and] it's a teamwork between me, their physician, and them as the patient, to come up with a plan that works best for them,” says Dr. Phillips.