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All About Cholesterol

Almost 100 million American adults have elevated blood cholesterol levels that put them at risk for cardiovascular disease, and of those about 34.5 million adults are at high risk.

What is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in the body. It is a substance that the body needs to function normally. Cholesterol is found in cell walls, including in the brain, nerves, muscle, skin, liver, intestines, and heart.

Cholesterol is needed to support the function of all the parts of the body. However, it takes only a small amount of cholesterol in the blood to meet these needs. Too much cholesterol in the bloodstream results in excess deposits in the arteries, including the arteries of the heart, where it may result in a narrowing or blockage signaling heart disease. A total blood cholesterol level of under 200 mg/dL is desirable.

Cholesterol and other fats are transported in the bloodstream in the form of particles called lipoproteins. The two most commonly known lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Experts refer to the LDL as “bad” because it contains the most cholesterol and can contribute to the formation of plaque buildup in the arteries. HDL cholesterol is considered “good” because it helps to remove cholesterol from the blood, thereby helping to prevent the fatty buildup and formation of plaque.

Many factors can raise your LDL cholesterol level. Your genes (heredity) determine how fast LDL is made and is removed from the bloodstream. You may inherit genes that cause your LDL to rise. Eating foods high in saturated fat (mostly found in animal products) and cholesterol (which only comes from animal products) may increase your LDL cholesterol level. Excess weight may also increase your LDL cholesterol level. Other factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, age, and stress may also contribute to its rise.

Saturated fats raise the blood cholesterol levels more than any other types of foods. The best advice is to reduce your overall fat intake. Eating less fat, especially saturated fats and cholesterol, and eating more unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids may help to decrease your blood cholesterol levels.

People who have had a heart attack are at a much higher risk for a second heart attack. By decreasing your LDL cholesterol level to less than 100 mg/dL you may reduce the buildup of cholesterol and plaque in the walls of the coronary arteries, thereby decreasing the risk for a second heart attack. In some situations, a physician may recommend an LDL of 70 mg/dL or less. The recommended LDL level for the general population is less than 130 mg/dL.

A normal blood cholesterol level can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. There are many things you can do to affect your blood cholesterol levels. Eating a variety of foods, especially those low in saturated fat and cholesterol, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight will help to decrease your blood cholesterol levels. If your physician has recommended medications to help lower your cholesterol, taking them as prescribed along with your lifestyle changes is important.

A total blood cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or lower is desirable. A healthy LDL level is less than 130 mg/dL and a healthy HDL level is more than 40 mg/dL in men and 50mg/dL in women.

Incorporate your knowledge regarding cholesterol into a healthy lifestyle. Examine those cholesterol risk factors that apply to you and take steps to eliminate or reduce the risks. It is also important that you contact your physician about a cholesterol screening in order to develop a personal profile.

Source: DeKalb Medical Center, Atlanta, GA

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