Good heart health is like a building block: It’s cumulative. The earlier you start making healthy lifestyle choices, the better off you will be as you get older. This is particularly true when it comes to high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by your body and found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly, but having too much (high cholesterol) puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke. The extra cholesterol that isn’t used by your body builds up in blood vessel walls, causing blockages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having high cholesterol doubles your risk of heart disease.
Your total cholesterol level is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood. It consists of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is also called “bad” cholesterol because it blocks your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps protect you from heart disease. The higher your HDL, the better. Finally, total cholesterol includes a triglycerides count. These are another type of fat that can build up in the body. High levels of triglycerides and low levels of HDL raise your risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, starting at age 20, which is when cholesterol levels can start to go up. As we age, cholesterol levels tend to rise. Men are generally at a higher risk than women. However, a woman’s risk goes up after she hits menopause. For those with high cholesterol, more frequent testing is recommended.
Children who are physically active, have a healthy diet, aren’t overweight, and don’t have a family history of high cholesterol are at a lower risk for having high cholesterol.
Current guidelines recommend that all children have their cholesterol checked between ages 9 and 12 and then again between ages 17 and 21. Kids with higher risk factors, like diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol, should be checked between ages 2 and 8 and again between ages 12 and 16.