Fitness Facts: Cholesterol
By Connie Colbert
Director, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
National Cholesterol Education Month is only a few days away, so let’s get educated about it.
What exactly is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty chemical that is an important part of the outer lining (membrane) of cells in the body. It is found mainly in foods that come from animals.
LDL lipoprotein is the major carrier of cholesterol in the blood. LDL cholesterol is called “bad” cholesterol because elevated LDL cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).
LDL lipoprotein deposits cholesterol on the artery walls, causing the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque. Over time, cholesterol plaque causes thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries, a process called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerotic disease of coronary arteries is called coronary heart disease. Atherosclerosis also can lead to brain damage from stroke. Much like smoking and blood pressure, blood cholesterol is a risk you can control!
Your blood cholesterol level is affected not only by what you eat but also by how quickly your body makes LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and disposes of it. In fact, your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, and it is not necessary to take in any additional cholesterol from the foods you eat.
- More than 102 million American adults (20 years and older) have total cholesterol levels at or above the healthy level of 200mg/dL.
- More than 35 million of these people have levels of 240 mg/dL or higher, which puts them at high risk for heart disease.
- The difficult thing about having high cholesterol is you do not have symptoms until the elevated cholesterol leads to another disorder, such as heart disease or stroke.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for about 600,000 deaths annually.
Who needs to get their cholesterol checked?
- Most healthy adults should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.
- Some people, such as people who have heart disease or diabetes or who have a family history of high cholesterol, need to get their cholesterol checked more often.
- Children and adolescents should have their cholesterol checked at least once between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21.
Talk to your health care team about your health history and how often you need to have your cholesterol checked.
OK, I got my numbers — what do they mean?
Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Desirable cholesterol levels:
- Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
- LDL (“bad”) cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL (“good”) cholesterol: Greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
Your cholesterol numbers are important, but they are just part of your overall health. Your doctor will look at your cholesterol numbers along with your family history, age, gender and other parts of your lifestyle or health, such as smoking, that could raise your risk for high cholesterol.
This complete picture helps your doctor determine whether you should take steps, such as lifestyle changes or medications, to help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
How do I know if I am at risk?
Here are risk factors that make you more susceptible to heart disease and stroke with an elevated cholesterol level:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Family history of high cholesterol
- Eating a diet high in saturated fat and trans fat
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Everyone’s risk goes up with age
If you have never had your cholesterol checked or it has been awhile, see your health care provider or make an appointment at the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic.
It is an important number to know!