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Keep Your Cholesterol in Check to Avoid Heart Disease and Stroke

September 07, 2010

Washington Hospital Physician Offers Tips During Cholesterol Education Month

We hear a lot about cholesterol these days. That’s because cholesterol has a lot to do with your risk of getting heart disease, the number one killer in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each year, more than a million people in this country have heart attacks and about a half million people die from heart disease, according to the NIH.

"High cholesterol has been identified as a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and vascular problems," said Dr. Steven Curran, a family practice physician and a member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. "We know that if we control cholesterol, we can reduce the risk for those diseases."

September is national Cholesterol Education Month, a good time to have your blood cholesterol checked and consider ways you can lower it if it is too high. It can be controlled with diet and exercise. If those are not enough, medications are available, according to Curran.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver and found in foods containing animal products like meat and dairy. The body needs cholesterol to make vitamin D and some hormones, build cell walls, and create bile salts that help you digest fat. But too much bad cholesterol can clog the arteries and create serious health problems, Curran said.

Cholesterol is Fat

There are two types of cholesterol: "good" and "bad," and it’s important to understand the difference. Too much bad cholesterol and not enough good cholesterol can increase your risk for disease, according to Curran.

Cholesterol is basically a type of fat called a lipid. Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream with the help of proteins, forming lipoproteins, he explained. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is considered good cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is considered bad cholesterol.

"Most cholesterol is LDL or bad cholesterol," Curran said. "LDL is the type that clogs the blood vessels and keeps blood from flowing to the rest of the body the way it should."

This bad cholesterol builds up on the walls of the arteries, he explained. Over time, the buildup causes "hardening of the arteries," which means the arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart is restricted or blocked.

However, HDL cholesterol helps to keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries by removing it from the blood vessels and carrying it back to the liver, he added. This good cholesterol is needed to keep your heart healthy.

Cholesterol is measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. Curran said it’s best to keep LDL cholesterol levels under 100 mg/dL. It is considered borderline high when it is over 129 mg/dL and high when it reaches 160 mg/dL, he added.

Keep it Down

High blood cholesterol does not cause any symptoms, so you may be unaware that your cholesterol is too high. That’s why Curran urges anyone over age 50 to have their blood cholesterol checked regularly.

"Even younger people should have their cholesterol checked on occasion," he said. "While your risk increases as you age, I’m seeing more children and teenagers with high cholesterol."

If you do have high blood cholesterol, there are steps you can take to lower it. "A lot of managing cholesterol is related to diet and exercise," Curran said. "It’s doable, and entirely manageable, but it’s a long-term process that requires lifestyle changes."

He recommended eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits and vegetables. That means reducing your intake of red meat, eggs and fatty dairy products like cheese and whole milk. Instead, eat more fruits, vegetables and lean meats like chicken and fish.

Losing weight and increasing physical activity can also help to lower LDL and raise HDL, according to Curran. He recommended being active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

"If diet and exercise aren’t enough, there are medications available that can help to lower cholesterol," Curran said. "You need to work with your physician on an aggressive program to monitor and treat it. The goal is to get your cholesterol under control before you end up needing a cardiologist."