Heart disease is the No, 1 killer of both men and women in the United States. High cholesterol puts you at risk for developing heart disease and other vascular problems, so it is important to understand what it is and how to control it.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance, like fat, found in your bloodstream and cells in your body, which is made naturally in your liver, but also obtained from the foods we eat. The amount of cholesterol our body makes naturally is based on heredity. High cholesterol, or hyperlipidemia, can run in families.
Some cholesterol is needed in your body in order to function normally; however, too much can cause problems. Over time, if cholesterol levels stay too high, they begin to form a plaque on artery walls. This causes the artery to become narrowed and keeps blood and oxygen from flowing freely throughout your body. Since most parts of your body need blood and oxygen to work properly, this means plaque formation can end up causing damage to areas such as the heart and brain, which could result in a heart attack or stroke.
Normally, a person may not have any symptoms of high cholesterol alone, which can make it hard to know there is a problem. For this reason, you should have your cholesterol checked at least every five years after age 20, and at least yearly if you have known coronary artery disease, take medication for cholesterol, or have risk factors that increase your chance of having high cholesterol. This can be done with a simple blood test called a lipid panel.
A lipid panel breaks cholesterol down into parts: total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. Your total cholesterol is the amount of all the cholesterol in your blood, the good and the bad, and should be less than 200 on average. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is also called "bad" cholesterol because it forms the plaque buildup along artery walls. The lower the number, the better; it should be kept under 100 on average. Just the opposite, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is referred to as "good" cholesterol because it works to move bad cholesterol away from artery walls to prevent plaque buildup. HDL should normally be above 40 for men and above 50 for women. The higher your HDL, the more protection you have against heart disease. Triglycerides are also fatty substances in the bloodstream that are stored and used later for energy. Like LDL, triglyceride levels should be kept low, normally less than 150.
There are many risk factors that contribute to high cholesterol. Some cannot be controlled, such as age and heredity. The older you get, the higher your cholesterol tends to be. Also, if a family member has high cholesterol; your chance is greater to have the same problem.
Fortunately, most risk factors for high cholesterol are controllable; for example, a low activity level. When you do not exercise regularly, you tend to gain weight. Extra weight can raise your LDL and total cholesterol levels. If your doctor permits, try exercising every day, eventually working up to 30 minutes a day, as you can tolerate. Regular exercise can help raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol.
Like exercise, the kind of diet we follow can affect our bad cholesterol levels. Eating certain things, such as cookies, cakes, whole milk products, margarines, shortenings and deep-fried foods, contribute to plaque buildup and raise bad cholesterol. Making changes in how you eat can help. Try to stay away from high-fat foods and put more fiber, fruits and vegetables into your daily diet. Also, limiting alcohol consumption may help, as too much can increase your triglyceride level.
Another controllable risk factor is smoking. Smoking is bad for your entire body, but specifically, it can lower your good cholesterol and weaken arteries. If you smoke, try quitting, and if you have tried before, try again. It is never too late to quit. Your doctor may have suggestions to assist you in quitting.
Also, stress has been shown to raise cholesterol levels, but can be hard to avoid. Find positive ways to handle stress, such as talking with a friend or family member. Try making time for things you enjoy doing. Stress is often unavoidable, but may be manageable.
Along with modifying your risk factors, you should always know your numbers. Know your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and if you are diabetic, know your blood sugar levels. The more you know, the more likely you are to make good, healthy decisions in your life. If you have never had your cholesterol checked, ask your doctor to do so. Then, talk with your doctor about the many ways to manage your levels. Your cholesterol levels are controllable. When managed properly, you may lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Small changes made in your lifestyle could make a big difference in your life. However, sometimes diet and exercise alone may not be enough to control your cholesterol levels. If that case, your doctor may prescribe a medication to help manage your cholesterol. There are many different options in medications, and your doctor will discuss which one is right for you.
Amanda Pratt is a registered nurse in the Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabitation Department at Trinity Regional Medical Center.