Know the Numbers and Get a Good Start to a Healthy Heart
Cholesterol is essential to life. Produced in the liver, it is found in every cell in your body.
The body makes all the cholesterol it needs and sometimes too much. High blood cholesterol can increase the risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of heart disease or stroke.
The bad cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) move throughout the body. LDL can build up on interior walls of arteries, making them rigid and narrow, and inhibiting blood flow. This sets the stage for heart attack or stroke. Good cholesterol, the healthy high-density lipoproteins (HDL), circulate through the body as well, sweep up excess cholesterol and take it back to the liver.
"High blood cholesterol does not produce symptoms, but it can be measured with a simple blood test," said Internal Medicine Physician Adriss Faraj, M.D., of Alma. "People need to have their cholesterol checked beginning at age 20. Since cholesterol levels tend to rise as we age, it is important to continue testing, at least every five years."
Dr. Faraj said people are more likely to have high cholesterol if members of their family have it, if they are overweight or if they eat a lot of fatty foods. "If someone has high blood cholesterol along with another risk factor, they face a greater chance of developing heart disease."
Those risk factors include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, low HDL (healthy) cholesterol, high triglycerides, family history of heart disease, excess weight and age. Men older than 45 and women older than 55 are most susceptible to heart disease.
"We cannot control what we inherited, but we can control our behavior," Dr. Faraj said. "The first step is to know your numbers. The second step is to work on getting your numbers where they belong."
A "lipoprotein profile" gives information about total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides – another form of fat in the blood.
"We used to tell people that total cholesterol of 200 was acceptable. Now we know that we should look at the LDL and HDL separately as well," Dr. Faraj said. HDL cholesterol higher than 60, and LDL cholesterol less than 140 are desirable for the general population. "People who are at highest risk of developing cardiovascular disease need to aim for an HDL level of 70. However, when it comes to LDL levels, lower is better regardless of your risk factors."
Prevention Is the First Line of Defense
Diet plays a major role in achieving and maintaining an optimal cholesterol level. Dr. Faraj said eating too much saturated fat, found mostly in animal products, and too much cholesterol, found only in animal products, raises LDL. Eating more soluble fiber can actually lower the bad cholesterol. Trans fat, found in many ready-to-eat foods and pantry items, should be eliminated.
"To improve cholesterol numbers, you should eat fewer high-fat meat and dairy products, and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Dr. Faraj said. "The less saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol consumed the better, as all three have been shown to raise LDL levels."
Dr. Faraj added that regular physical activity may not only lower LDL cholesterol, it may increase the level of good HDL cholesterol. "Regular activity also helps the cardiovascular system and aids weight loss," he said. "Losing even five to 10 pounds of excess weight can help lower total cholesterol levels."
When Best Efforts Aren’t Enough
While lifestyle choices are critical to a healthy heart, some people need more. "When a patient does all they can to manage their cholesterol and the numbers won’t respond, we have the option of using lipid-lowering statins, or cholesterol-binding medications," Dr. Faraj said.
If medications are needed to lower cholesterol, Dr. Faraj stressed it is still important to eat a healthy diet, control weight, exercise and avoid tobacco. "Along with improving overall health, these activities can reduce the amount of medicine needed to control cholesterol."
Get a good start on a healthy heart and receive a free cholesterol screening at the Mt. Pleasant Health Fair on Saturday, May 14, from 8-10 a.m. at MidMichigan Health Park – Mt. Pleasant, 4851 E. Pickard Street, Mt. Pleasant. To register for the Mt. Pleasant Health Fair call MidMichigan Health Line toll free at (800) 999-3199.