Harvard Women's Health Watch

Up with HDL, the "good" cholesterol

Guidelines mainly target LDL cholesterol, but HDL matters, too.

Among the many things we can do to reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in women in the United States, is to pay attention to cholesterol levels. Although for most people it's not as potent a risk factor as smoking or high blood pressure, excess cholesterol in the blood may set the stage for atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

Cholesterol, a substance needed by cells throughout the body, travels through the bloodstream in protein packages called lipoproteins. The lipoprotein of greatest concern to clinicians is low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol. If more LDL is produced than the cells can absorb, it lodges in artery walls and contributes to the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque. In recent years, thanks largely to the availability of the powerful cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, driving down LDL has been the main target for improving cholesterol levels. In studies involving mostly men (with a fair representation of women), statins have been shown to cut the risk of developing and dying from heart disease by 30% to 40%.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »