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Watch for the ‘Silent Killer’

September 30, 2011

Get your blood cholesterol checked every five years 

One in every six adults in this country has high cholesterol. This is serious, because high blood cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women in America today.

September was National Cholesterol Education Month. If you missed it, it’s never too late to learn about cholesterol and what you should be doing to minimize your risk of deadly heart disease, heart attack and stroke. The problem is, you can have high cholesterol and not know it.

 “You can’t rely on any physical signs to tell you your cholesterol level is too high, because having high cholesterol does not necessarily cause symptoms,” warns Steven A. Curran, M.D., a family practice physician with Washington Township Medical Foundation. “In this sense, high cholesterol is a silent killer.”

You also can’t feel safe because you have no family history of high cholesterol or you had a normal cholesterol test 10 years ago. That’s why the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that all adults have their blood cholesterol checked every five years. If a problem is identified, you should have the test more often.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that exists in every cell of your body. It helps to make hormones and vitamin D and to aid digestion. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs and can also get it from the foods you eat.

Too much cholesterol in your blood stream contributes to the formation of plaque inside the blood vessels leading to your heart, called coronary arteries. This condition is called atherosclerosis.

Plaque build-up can harden over time and narrow your coronary arteries, limiting the flow of the blood that carries oxygen to your heart muscle.

 “When plaque builds up, it can break open, causing a blood clot to form. Large clots can partially or completely block the blood flow through the coronary artery, and this can lead to a heart attack,” explains Dr. Curran.

Plaque build-up in other arteries of your body, such as the ones supplying oxygen-rich blood to your brain or arms and legs, can cause other problems—carotid artery disease, stroke or peripheral artery disease.

Find out your cholesterol level

A simple blood test can tell you your total cholesterol level, as well as levels of HDL (high density lipoproteins), LDL (low density lipoproteins) and triglycerides. A total cholesterol of less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is considered ‘desirable,’ putting you at a lower risk for heart disease. A cholesterol of 200 to 239 is considered “borderline-high.” A cholesterol of 240 or more is considered high. A person with high cholesterol has more than twice the risk of heart disease as a person whose cholesterol is below 200.

 “Knowing your LDL and HDL is also important,” adds Dr. Curran. “LDL is sometimes called the ‘bad cholesterol’ because it can lead to cholesterol build-up in the arteries. HDL is like the ‘garbage truck’ of the blood because it goes into the arteries and helps to clean them out. HDL carries excess cholesterol to your liver, which removes it from the body.”

A high level of triglycerides can be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. It may also be a sign of metabolic disease, such as diabetes.

Listen to your mother

The good news is that, for most people, high cholesterol is preventable.

 “The best way to prevent high cholesterol is to listen to the advice of your mother,” explains Dr. Curran. “That means, eat your veggies and go outside and play.”

Most people can prevent high cholesterol through diet and exercise. You should eat a sensible diet low in saturated fat and high in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You should also maintain a healthy body weight and exercise regularly.

People who already have high cholesterol can usually get their level under control through a combination of these lifestyle changes and, if needed, medication under the supervision of a physician. Even if you are on medication to lower your cholesterol, it is still important to maintain a healthy diet.

 “Medication can make it easier to control your cholesterol, but it’s not a license to go overboard with your diet,” states Dr. Curran. “The advantages of a healthy diet shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Learn More

For more information about cholesterol and heart disease, visit the web site of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: www.nhlbi.nih.gov. The site includes an online Risk Assessment for Estimating Your 10-year Risk of Having a Heart Attack. To complete the assessment, you will need to know your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.

For more information about cardiac care service at the Heart Program of Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com or call (510) 745-6503.

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