Cholesterol is in the news these days. A family member or someone else may take medicine for high cholesterol. Certain foods, such as eggs, are high in cholesterol. Although some foods contain cholesterol, a healthy body makes the cholesterol it needs. The liver in all animals, including humans, makes this soft, waxy substance every day. Cholesterol is in the blood and in every cell in the body. The body uses cholesterol to form healthy, strong cell membranes (walls). Without cholesterol, cell membranes would be dry and tear easily. Material inside the cells would leak out. The body uses cholesterol in other ways. Cholesterol is in the tissues of the brain. The non-nerve cells of the brain make cholesterol. The brain is made up of billions of neurons (nerve cells) that communicate with one another. Neurons pass messages to other neurons by releasing chemical substances called neurotransmitters that are located at the ends of neurons. Neurotransmitters cross the gaps between neurons, called synapses, and then bind to nearby neurons. The cholesterol made in the brain helps synapses form.

The body also uses cholesterol to help make certain vitamins and hormones, such as the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen. Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D, which is necessary for healthy bones and teeth. A small organ called the gallbladder uses cholesterol and other substances to make bile. This green liquid makes it possible for the body to absorb fats. The body uses fats to make fatty tissues that cushion the organs and help keep the body warm.

Cholesterol is essential for children, teens, and adults. Everyone needs it to be healthy. However, some people have high levels of cholesterol. Teens who have high cholesterol are more likely to have high cholesterol as adults. High cholesterol greatly increases the chance of developing cardiovascular disease, which affects the heart and arteries (blood vessels). People who have cardiovascular disease may have a heart attack or stroke, which could result in death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death for adults in the United States. Children and teens can develop cardiovascular disease. Overweight and obese teens, ages twelve to nineteen, have increased risk. The CDC states that about 20 percent of overweight teens and 43 percent of obese teens have a cholesterol level that raises their chance of cardiovascular heart disease. According to the CDC, about 33 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese. Overweight and obese young people have an increased risk of becoming obese adults and developing high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. What teens eat, their fitness levels and weight, and other factors all affect their health. Teens cannot control some factors, such as genetics, that influence their health. However, they can make most of the lifestyle choices that will affect their health now and in the future. Developing and following healthy habits can help teens lead longer, healthier lives.

Cholesterol has many important functions in the body. However, having high levels of cholesterol in the blood is a significant factor for developing cardiovascular disease as teens become older. The higher the cholesterol level, the greater the risk is for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute lists heart disease as the number-one cause of death for adults in the United States. The body makes about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol every day, mostly in the liver. People might eat another 100 to 500 milligrams every day from certain foods such as meat, egg yolks, and whole milk. To control cholesterol, a good step is to find out the level of cholesterol in the blood. Teens can do many things to lower their cholesterol if their level is high. If their level is OK, teens can take steps to maintain their healthy level.

Over time, too much cholesterol in the body can damage the circulatory system and many body organs. The circulatory system is made up of the heart, blood, and blood vessels that carry blood around the body. The heart is the main organ of the circulatory system. About the size of a fist, the heart pumps blood throughout the body. Blood travels in various directions in the body. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood filled with oxygen away from the heart. Blood also carries nutrients and other chemicals, such as hormones. Inside the body cells, blood gives up oxygen and picks up waste products. Blood with waste products then flows back to the heart through the veins.

Too much cholesterol in the blood builds up as plaque along the inside walls of the arteries. This buildup is called atherosclerosis, and it is one of the main causes of cardiovascular disease. Atherosclerosis actually begins in childhood and continues as people get older. As atherosclerosis progresses, the arteries become narrow and harden, becoming less flexible. Blood flow through the arteries slows down due to this increased resistance. The heart receives less blood. People may have sharp chest pain if too little blood and oxygen reach the heart. A heart attack can result if the supply of blood to any part of the heart is blocked. If blood supply to the brain is cut off, a stroke can result. Atherosclerosis can also decrease the flow of blood to other organs, such as the kidneys or intestines. This can cause damage to these organs.

High cholesterol can lead to gallstones. These small, hard lumps form in the gallbladder or in the tube that connects the gallbladder to the intestines. Some gallstones are mostly made up of cholesterol. They can block the flow of bile out of the gallbladder, which is a painful condition. A buildup of gallstones can lead to infection or damage of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas. Death can result if the blockage or infection is not treated.

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