Although the ever-growing list of “conditions to watch out for” seems long enough already, preventing high cholesterol is nonetheless important. Cholesterol is a wax-like substance naturally produced by the liver and also found in animal products, and although it is necessary for bodily functions, too much cholesterol can pose a risk by clogging the arteries. Below are facts you should know this Cholesterol Education Month.

Why does it matter?

Cholesterol matters because high “bad cholesterol” (LDL or low-density lipoprotein) increases risk for heart disease and stroke, the first and fifth leading causes of death, respectively. High cholesterol isn’t only found in older Americans; young adults and even children can experience cholesterol build-up in the arteries. However, not all cholesterol is bad; “good cholesterol” (HDL or high-density lipoprotein) carries cholesterol to the liver, which eventually drives it from the body.

What should I do?

Although high cholesterol usually doesn’t exhibit symptoms, cholesterol levels can easily be checked through lipoprotein blood tests. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends testing every five years for everyone 20 or older. However, testing may be done more frequently based on anormal results, medical history, or family history.

It’s also important to know the risk factors for high cholesterol, including high blood pressure, diabetes, older age in men, postmenopause in women, and family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. It is also important to avoid more preventable factors such as obesity, smoking, and heavy alcohol consumption. Regular exercise is critical in preventing or reducing high cholesterol, as well as healthy eating. Be sure to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods low in saturated fats such as chia seeds, nuts, and avocado.

Avoid cholesterol-heavy foods like fast foods, butter, margarine, bacon, full-fat dairy products, and desserts, and limit intake of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and sugar. Instead, eat more cholesterol-lowering/friendly foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, low-fat/fat-free dairy products, whole grains, and beans.

How can my provider help?

If you aren’t sure of your cholesterol levels, ask your provider about getting your cholesterol checked. Your Health Center staff is more than equipped to help you address or prevent cholesterol problems. For example, your Health Center staff can help develop a care plan to improve your diet and exercise habits or provide health coaching on smoking cessation. In some cases, your provider may also recommend medication to treat high cholesterol.