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Finding Your Way

Treating High Cholesterol

An up-to-date guide explains the condition and the different medicines to treat it

If you’re older than 45, there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has high cholesterol. It’s so common that treating high cholesterol led to 44 million doctor visits in 2006. High cholesterol may be widespread, but understanding how to treat it can be confusing. However, lowering high cholesterol can prevent heart attacks and strokes. It could even save your life.

That’s why my federal agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), offers a current guide called “Treating High Cholesterol.” The guide explains in plain English how this common medical condition is treated and the pros and cons of different cholesterol medicines.

Cholesterol is vital to your body. Your liver makes cholesterol, which is found in your blood. We all need some cholesterol, but too much is harmful. Your diet and family history affect your cholesterol levels.

There are two main types of cholesterol—good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol. When your cholesterol is too high, that refers to your bad cholesterol, or your LDL level. When bad cholesterol builds up and leaves deposits (called plaque) in the walls of your arteries, it can limit blood flow and cause a heart attack or stroke.

A simple blood test can determine your cholesterol level and your risk for heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the higher the chance you have high cholesterol. Risk factors include:

  • Age (being 45 or older for men or 55 or older for women).
  • Family history of early heart disease.
  • Smoking.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Low levels of good (HDL) cholesterol.
  • Diabetes or certain other conditions.


Your doctor can help you determine your level of risk. The first step in controlling your cholesterol is a balanced diet and more exercise. Your doctor or nurse may recommend a diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting foods that are high in fat. However, even with a good diet and exercise habits, you may need medicine to lower your cholesterol.

Different kinds of medicines work in different ways to improve cholesterol levels. Some block the liver from making cholesterol, while others decrease the amount of fat absorbed from food.

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