Cholesterol

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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that's found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods.

But too much cholesterol can be harmful. It can build up in the arteries that supply blood to your heart and brain. Over time, this buildup can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

You get cholesterol from two sources: your body makes it and you get it from the food you eat. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. But dietary cholesterol, which is found in animal foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, can add to the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

Saturated and trans fats are the two main dietary culprits that contribute to high cholesterol. Saturated fats, found mostly in animal products, increase your total cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet.

Trans fats, often called "trans fatty acids," are created when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solids (a process called hydrogenation). Trans fats are found in many commercially baked goods, such as cookies and crackers, as well as fried foods, such as doughnuts.

You can also have high cholesterol if it runs in your family. In fact, genetics is thought to account for about one-third of all cases of high cholesterol. Other risk factors include diabetes, being overweight or obese, smoking, and not getting enough exercise.

High cholesterol doesn't usually have any symptoms, so you may not know that you have it. That's why it's important to get your cholesterol checked regularly, starting at age 20.

Treatment for high cholesterol typically involves lifestyle changes, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet, and may also require medication.