September may be “Back to School Month” but it is also Cholesterol Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the number one leading cause of death in the U.S. More than one million Americans have a heart attack each year and about 500,000 die of heart disease. High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease, causing heart attack and stroke.
Despite the dangers of high cholesterol and heart disease, many people may not fully understand the link between the two or know if they have cardiovascular risk. In fact, more than 102 million Americans over the age of 20 have total cholesterol at or above healthy levels. More than 35 million of these people have levels of total cholesterol that puts them at high risk for heart disease.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood. Your body, specifically your liver, makes all the cholesterol you need. The rest comes from what you eat, namely foods high in saturated and trans-fat, such as meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils. Saturated and trans fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it normally would. When there is too much in the bloodstream, it builds up in the walls of the arteries and, over time, they become narrower and blood flow to the heart slows down or becomes blocked.
A few other things can affect cholesterol levels, too, including:
• Being overweight
• Being older (cholesterol levels naturally rise as we age)
• Family history of high cholesterol
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol usually doesn’t have any symptoms. As a result, many people do not know that their cholesterol levels are too high. However, doctors can do a simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile to measure your total cholesterol levels, including LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol), HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol), and triglycerides.
How often should you have your cholesterol checked?
The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked at least every 5 years. Screening should take place more frequently as you age. Preventive guidelines for cholesterol screening among adults differ, but experts agree on the need to screen adults who have other risk factors for coronary heart disease: obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and family history. Less than half of adults who have these risk factors don’t get cholesterol screening even though up to a quarter of them have elevated cholesterol.
How do you know if you have cardiovascular risk?
The higher the LDL level, the greater the chances are of getting heart disease. The higher the HDL level, the lower the chance for heart disease.
How is high cholesterol treated?
The main goal of any treatment for high cholesterol is to lower the LDL level enough to reduce risks. Depending upon several risk categories, a type of treatment will be recommended by your doctor. The primary medication for high cholesterol is a class of drugs called statins. Statins block an enzyme inside liver cells to disrupt cholesterol production, thereby reducing the amount being released into the bloodstream. Some also reduce the inflammatory process in the vessel wall, stopping plaque formation inside the artery.
Not everyone can tolerate statins well, and some patients may need more help than they can provide. There are a few other medications available but each of these have their own levels of success and risks for side effects.
In addition, you can lower your cholesterol levels through lifestyle changes:
• Eat low-fat and high-fiber food – more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains
• For adults, getting at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week
• For those aged 6-17, getting 1 hour or more of physical activity each day
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Don’t smoke or quit if you smoke
If you have questions regarding your cholesterol levels, talk to your medical provider to get a lipid screening panel and to get additional information on how you can lower your risk for stroke and heart attack. Call the CCMH Medical Clinic at 712-265-2700.