The No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States is heart disease. 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, which is made naturally in your liver, but also is 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.
Cholesterol is found in your bloodstream and cells in your body. A certain amount is needed in your body in order to function normally. However, too much cholesterol can cause health 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 a minimum of 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 and like LDL. Triglyceride levels should be kept low, normally less than 150.
There are some uncontrollable risk factors that can contribute to high cholesterol, such as age and heredity. For example, the older you get, the higher your cholesterol tends to be. Also, if you have a family member with 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. People who do not exercise tend to gain weight. Extra weight can raise LDL and total cholesterol levels. If your doctor permits, try exercising daily, working up to 30 minutes a day, or 15 minutes twice a day, as you can tolerate. Regular exercise helps 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 build-up 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 whole body, but specifically, it can lower your good cholesterol and weaken arteries. If you smoke, try quitting. If you have tried quitting before, try again. It is never too late. Your doctor may have suggestions to assist you in quitting.
Sometimes positive lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to control your cholesterol levels. In that case, your doctor may prescribe a medication that, along with diet and exercise, will help you manage your cholesterol. There are many different medication options, and you should discuss with you doctor which one is right for you.
Your health is your responsibility. Do not wait for a problem to arise before taking an interest in your health. The more you know, the more likely you are to make healthy choices in your life. Talking with your doctor about the many ways to manage your cholesterol levels is taking a significant step toward lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Amanda Pratt, RN, is affiliated with Trinity Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Trinity Regional Medical Center.