Along with their father's eyes or their mother's hair, some people may also inherit a tendency toward long-term health issues.

A new study at Harvard Medical School found twice as many people as previously thought have a family tie to a severe form of high cholesterol. This inherited condition is twice as common in the United States as previously believed. It affects 1 in 250 adults.

People with this condition have high cholesterol from birth but may have no symptoms until they have already developed serious heart problems. Findings in this study and others show the value of knowing your family medical history and sharing it with your doctor.

Knowing your family medical history “guides your doctor in deciding on the best strategy for you as an individual,” said Dr. Allan Chernov, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield medical director. That could involve earlier testing or testing more often, for example.

Dr. Chernov said it may be difficult to ask such personal questions if you are not part of a family that communicates well. He suggests finding a person in the family who you feel comfortable with to ask for help and advice on how to move forward. Then proceed with tact and sensitivity.

Why Is Cholesterol Important?

Nearly 1 in every 3 Americans has high cholesterol, which can clog blood vessels and lead to heart disease. In fact, people with high total cholesterol have about twice the risk for heart disease as people with healthy levels.

Along with family history, unhealthy diet, weight gain and lack of exercise are contributing factors for most people.

If your cholesterol numbers are borderline or high, you should work closely with your doctor to follow a plan to get those levels under control.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is the fatty substance in your blood that is latched on to particles called lipoproteins. “Lipo” means “fat” or “fatty.”

Doctors test the blood for three main types:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) — this is the “good” kind. HDL helps take cholesterol out of your body. It gives your arteries a better chance of being unaffected.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — this is the “bad” kind. LDL is the main type of harmful cholesterol. It can build up and block the arteries. Your risk for heart attack or stroke rises as your LDL level rises.
  • Triglycerides — this is another bad fat. High levels are often found with other heart disease risk factors.

Your total cholesterol is a blend of the three. A higher total means a greater risk for heart disease. The aim of treatment is to boost HDL while lowering LDL and triglycerides.

If you are confused about what your cholesterol numbers mean, you are not alone. Your doctor can tell you what your ideal cholesterol numbers should be. Targets for LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol vary from person to person, according to the American Heart Association.

However, experts often suggest these levels for those with average risk of heart disease:

  • HDL: 40 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL: Less than 130 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Keeping Your Cholesterol in Check

Here are some ways to help manage cholesterol:

  • If you’re overweight, shed excess pounds.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Avoid saturated fat. It is found in meats, whole milk dairy products and some prepared foods.

If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend medicine along with these changes. You and your doctor will decide whether you need medicine by checking your test results and all your other risk factors.

If you do need medicine, be aware that not all brand name drugs are covered by your health plan. To try to keep your costs lower, ask if a generic version of a prescribed drug is available. It's also a good idea to check the drug formulary for your health plan to see what cholesterol drugs are covered and share that information with your doctor.

Getting your recommended screenings is an important part of managing your cholesterol. Blue Cross and Blue Shield members can take advantage of important health screenings available at no cost when services are provided by a network provider.*