Intermountain Healthcare

Here’s What You Should Know About A Condition That Affects More Than 100 Million Americans

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September is National Cholesterol Education Month, a time to educate people about the dangers of high cholesterol, a serious health condition that affects nearly 102 million Americans over the age of 20.

High cholesterol is connected with heart disease – the world’s leading cause of death. High cholesterol is one of the most common and commonly misunderstood health risks in America. It can be caused by an unhealthy diet and exacerbated by smoking and a lack of exercise. Because there are no symptoms to accompany high cholesterol, it can be hard to diagnose.

Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat, or lipid, which moves throughout your body in your blood. Lipids are substances that do not dissolve in water, so they do not come apart in blood. Your body makes cholesterol, but you can also get it from foods. Cholesterol is only found in foods that come from animals.

Having enough cholesterol to meet your needs is important. Having too much cholesterol can cause health problems. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries, according to Dr. Brent Muhlestein, a cardiologist at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.

Cholesterol comes in two forms:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, sometimes called good cholesterol: These packets carry cholesterol to your liver for processing. More HDL cholesterol means a lower chance of heart disease.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), sometimes called bad cholesterol: Too much LDL cholesterol can build up deposits in your arteries, which can lead to heart disease

Your doctor can order a simple blood test, called a lipid panel test, to check your cholesterol. This is an important part of your health care that prevents heart attack and stroke.

Cardiologists recommend that everyone over the age of 20 get their cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years. High cholesterol does not cause any symptoms by itself. Routine screening is the best way to detect this condition.

  • Total Cholesterol: Lower is better for your total cholesterol. You want this number to be 200 mg/dL or less.
  • LDL (“Bad Cholesterol”): You want this number to be 100 mg/dL or less. 70 mg/dL is the goal for most patients with heart disease.
  • HDL (“Good Cholesterol”): Higher is better for your HDL. If you are a man, you want this number to be 40 mg/dL or higher. If you are a woman, you want it to be 45 mg/dL or higher. An HDL level of 60 mg/dL may help protect you from heart disease.
  • Triglycerides: Lower is better for your triglycerides. You want this number to be 150 mg/dL or less.
  • Ratio of Total Cholesterol to HDL: To get this number, your doctor will divide your total cholesterol by your HDL. Lower is better. You want this ratio to be 4.5 to 1, or less.

These are general recommendations. Your doctor will develop personalized goals for your cholesterol levels, based on your overall health and other risk factors, such as family history.

High cholesterol treatment includes lifestyle changes, like eating a healthy, low-fat diet and taking medications.

Here are some simple, but invaluable, steps that will reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Eat LOTS of Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables can be a great source of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber has been proven to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
  • Eat More Whole Grains: These foods contain dietary fiber. Studies have linked high-fiber diets to reduced blood cholesterol. Examples are whole wheat, brown rice, oats, and barley.
  • Choose Heart Healthy Proteins: These protein sources are typically lower in saturated fat than other sources. Examples are fish, egg whites, chicken, beans, unsalted nuts, and seeds. In addition, several varieties of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower your triglyceride levels.
  • Choose Heart Healthy Proteins: These protein sources are typically lower in saturated fat than other sources. Examples are fish, egg whites, chicken, beans, unsalted nuts, and seeds. In addition, several varieties of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. This type of fat can help lower your triglycerides.
  • Choose Unsaturated Fats and Oils: Look for foods that are higher in unsaturated fats, and lower in saturated fats. Good choices are olive oil, canola oil, and unsalted nuts. Eating foods high in unsaturated fat may help lower LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Select Low-Fat Dairy Products: “Whole” dairy products are high in fat and cholesterol. Stick with dairy products that are 1% fat or less.
  • Limit Sweets and Desserts: These foods have excess sugar, fat, and calories. Keep them to a minimum and enjoy them in small quantities.
  • Medications: Your doctor may also prescribe a lipid medication to help improve your cholesterol levels. Lipid medications, also called blood cholesterol-lowering agents or antihyperlipidemic, work in different ways. Depending on which one you’re taking, lipid medications can lower your total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. These medications can also treat abnormally low levels of HDL cholesterol. The most common lipid medications are called statins.

For more information visit the Intermountain Healthcare website.

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