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September 5, 2019

Cholesterol Primer: What You Should Know, and How You Can Lower It   

Sophia L. Thomas DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP 

Most people have heard of cholesterol – often it’s lumped in with other chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure – but many don’t really understand what it is or why having too much of it is such a bad thing. Plenty of my patients think high cholesterol is an old man problem or something only obese people have, when really, anyone can have it. So, who should worry, and what do high cholesterol numbers really mean?   

Let’s start with the basics. Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver that helps with hormone production and food digestion. It’s also found in fatty foods. Some cholesterol is a good thing, but too much of it leads to trouble. Elevated cholesterol levels cause fat to build up in the arteries, which narrows passageways and can eventually block blood flow to the heart or brain. Additionally, plaque formed from fatty deposits can break off and cause life threatening clots. People with high cholesterol are twice as likely to develop heart disease, and their risk of heart attack and stroke jumps significantly.  

More than 102 million adults have high cholesterol levels, and more than 35 million have extremely high levels, putting them at serious risk for heart disease. Because there are usually no warning signs, awareness and treatment rely almost solely on a simple blood test to determine risk. Results outline a patient’s total cholesterol level, including their LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad cholesterol”), HDL (high-density protein, or “good” cholesterol) and triglycerides. LDL is considered bad cholesterol because it delivers cholesterol to the body, while HDL is good because it collects fatty deposits and returns them to the liver. Triglycerides are another type of fat found in the blood – these result from consuming more fat than your body can use.  

Treating high cholesterol often begins by making lifestyle changes, and in severe cases when medication is needed, lifestyle choices will impact the effectiveness. Here are four things everyone should do to lower their cholesterol levels before they lead to a major health problem: 

  1. Eat a heart healthy diet. Avoid foods that are high in saturated fats, like red meat and full-fat dairy, and eliminate all trans fats, which are typically found in margarines and store-bought cookies. Focus instead on eating foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or walnuts, and increase your intake of soluble fiber, found in things like oatmeal and apples, which reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.  

  1. Increase your physical activity. 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week can reduce LDL levels by as much as 10 percent, and raise HDL levels by as much as six percent. Additionally, exercise has shown to increase the size of LDL particles, which reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.    

  1. Quit smoking. Smoking interferes with the cleansing ability of HDL, which results in more residual cholesterol in the blood, and promotes LDL buildup. After quitting, blood circulation and lung function begin to improve in just three months, and a year later, the risk of heart disease is cut in half.   

  1. Lose excess weight. A BMI index greater than 30 puts you at risk for high cholesterol, as does eating an unhealthy diet, which typically leads to weight gain and a spike in LDL levels.  

High cholesterol is a major health problem, but it’s easily overlooked. Even adults with known elevated risk factors tend to ignore the threat, and less than half will get the recommended screening every five years. If you don’t know your cholesterol levels, or know you have elevated cholesterol but don’t know what to do next, make an appointment with a provider. These lifestyle changes can dramatically reduce your cholesterol, and if it’s still high, medication can help protect your arteries from dangerous wear and tear. Today, 28 percent of adults over the age of 40 use lipid-lowering drugs, but millions more need to do something before it’s too late. Don’t ignore cholesterol – what you don’t know and can’t see can kill you if you’re not careful. To learn more visit wechoosenps.org.