February is recognized nationally as American Heart Month. As part of our educational efforts surrounding the observance, we’ve been exploring heart-related topics such as heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). In this post, we’ll explore another key component of your health…cholesterol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in three American adults has high cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol generally has no symptoms, so the only way to know your level is by having it checked through a simple blood test that your doctor can order. Your healthcare practitioner can help you manage your cholesterol through healthy lifestyle modifications and medications to reduce your cholesterol if needed.
What is Cholesterol and Why Is It Important?
Cholesterol is a substance produced by several organs in the body, in particular the liver. Cholesterol is necessary because your body uses it to produce hormones and substances that help you digest food. However, high levels of cholesterol in your blood (sometimes called “hypercholesterolemia”) can cause health complications. One major complication of high cholesterol is the formation of plaque in your arteries, a process called “atherosclerosis,” which causes the arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. Ultimately, this can result in a heart attack or stroke.
Causes and Risk Factors
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are many possible causes of high cholesterol including1:
- Unhealthy lifestyle choices such as a diet high in saturated fats or trans fats, having a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking
- Other medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, HIV, hypothyroidism, being overweight or obese, polycystic ovary syndrome, and various inflammatory diseases
Risk factors for high cholesterol include:
- Family health history, in particular, a history of familial hypercholesterolemia
- Age (Changes in your body due to aging may increase your risk for high cholesterol.)
How Is High Cholesterol Diagnosed?
Your healthcare practitioner will look at several factors when evaluating your cholesterol. Be sure to tell your provider about any family health history of high cholesterol, any existing medical conditions you may have, and any medications you may be taking. Your provider will likely evaluate your cholesterol level using a simple blood test. You may hear or see this blood work referred to as a “lipid panel.” Your test results may include several different measurements, including:
- Total Cholesterol
- LDL: LDL stands for “low-density lipoprotein” and is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in your arteries increasing your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- HDL: HDL stands for “high-density lipoprotein” and is sometimes called “good” cholesterol because it helps remove other types of cholesterol from your blood. High HDL levels can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Triglycerides: Triglycerides are another type of fat found in your blood. (We’ll take a closer look at triglycerides in another blog post.)
Your healthcare practitioner can use the results of your lipid profile to diagnose high cholesterol and to develop a treatment plan that may include healthy lifestyle modifications or possibly medications to control your cholesterol. Diagnosis of high cholesterol is partially dependent upon your age and sex, so be sure to ask your doctor what your ideal cholesterol levels should be.
How to Prevent and Manage High Cholesterol
As mentioned above, some of the risk factors for high cholesterol (such as genetics, race, and age) are outside your control. However, you can take some proactive steps to help prevent high cholesterol such as2:
- Having a healthy diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Getting enough physical activity
- Stopping smoking
- Limiting alcohol consumption
If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, your healthcare practitioner can help you to manage it through healthy lifestyle choices such as those mentioned above and, when needed, medications to treat high cholesterol.
Talk to Your Health Care Practitioner About Cholesterol
If you’re concerned about your risk factors for high cholesterol or haven’t had your blood cholesterol checked recently, be sure to discuss it with your primary care physician. Your doctor can help you develop a plan to help prevent or manage high cholesterol.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/high-blood-cholesterol. Retrieved 2/26/20.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.* Cholesterol. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/prevention.htm. Retrieved 2/26/20.
*Reference to specific commercial products, manufacturers, companies, or trademarks does not constitute its endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Government, Department of Health and Human Services, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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