September is Cholesterol Awareness Month. Cholesterol is a fat that is produced in the body, by the liver, or that comes from the foods we eat, specifically animal products. In itself, cholesterol is not bad, and has several functions in the body, such as building and maintaining cell membranes, and helping to convert sunlight to vitamin D.
There are, however, two types of cholesterol (HDL and LDL), and it’s important to know about them, and understand how cholesterol is associated with risk for heart attack and stroke.
Low density lipoprotein, or LDL, carries cholesterol from the liver to cells. When cells cannot use it all, there may be a buildup that increases the risk of arterial blockage.
So, when you get tested for cholesterol, what do the numbers on your test mean?
Less than 100 mg/dL is considered optimal, 130 is borderline high, and 160 is high.
So-called “good” cholesterol (HDL is high density lipoprotein) seems to protect people against heart attacks. Low levels of HDL (40 mg/dL, or less, for men and 50 mg/dL, or less, for women) seem to indicate a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. HDL takes the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver, where it is broken down as waste and eliminated. Levels of 60 mg/dL or higher are desirable, and considered to be protective against heart attacks.
A total cholesterol reading of 200 mg/dL or less is desirable. Total cholesterol is HDL plus LDL plus 20 percent of your triglyceride level. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body, and people who have high triglycerides combined with too much LDL and too little HDL are at risk for coronary artery disease and diabetes. If your triglyceride levels are high, and your cholesterol levels are not appropriate, your doctor may advise a lifestyle change that includes exercise and eating a better diet.
Although there is cholesterol in many foods, the ones to avoid are the saturated fats, such as red meat, hard cheeses, and ice cream. We still need fats in our diet, but “good fats” come in foods such as olive oil, fish, nuts, and seeds. So, it might be better to have salmon and a vegetable sautéed in olive oil, followed by an orange sorbet, instead of steak and potatoes with butter and sour cream, followed by a hot fudge sundae.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has a section on its web site devoted to the treatment and prevention of high cholesterol: http://tinyurl.com/22vexna. The Mayo Clinic suggests five foods you can start eating now to help lower cholesterol: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cholesterol/CL00002.
AHA says that 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an average of one death every 39 seconds! Imagine how many families could be spared the pain of a lost loved one, or how much money the health care system could save if we could reduce those numbers. The good news is that we can. Preventive health care is important. Get tested and know your numbers. Then, if there is a concern, follow your doctor’s advice on getting your numbers under control.
Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.