Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the body that can build up in the coronary arteries, narrowing them and lessening the flow of blood to the heart muscle.
It leads to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This puts you at risk of heart disease, and can lead to a heart attack or stroke or other medical problems. A majority of people who have had a heart attack have high cholesterol.
Know your numbers
Total Cholesterol: all the cholesterol in your body combined: (should be less than 200 mg/dL
High Density Lipoprotein (HDL), known as the “good” cholesterol that helps clear fat from your blood: (should be more than 40-60 mg/dL)
Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), known as the “bad” cholesterol that can clog your arteries: (should be within 70-130 mg/dL)
Triglycerides: a fat in the bloodstream. 10-150mg/dL (lower numbers are better)
If your numbers are high - you need to get them down to within normal limits as soon as possible.
You also need to find out how much damage has already been done to your arteries thoughout the years. You can not assume that these high numbers are something new, unless you have been getting tested throughout the years.
Numbers are only part of the story
Unfortunately, we hear it all the time - "He was so healthy and careful about what he ate... how could he possibly die from heart disease"?
Sometimes people know that high cholesterol "runs in their family" but often, this fact is unknown. Either way, if high cholesterol is a problem you are born with - one that silently gets worse over time due to predisposition, you may unwittingly be at serious risk for heart disease despite leading a healthy lifestyle filled with good nutrition and exercise.
If your high cholesterol is genetic, you can only know the current status of potentially blocked arteries through specific blood and other tests.
Some guidelines recommend beginning cholesterol screening at age 20. It should be checked every five years thereafter, or more frequently if it is not within normal limits.
Family history and/or risk factors may also lead your doctor to test your cholesterol earlier - sometimes as early as childhood, and more frequently.
If you are experiencing any tightening in your chest or lower throat area, you may be experiencing angina. Angina can be one of the only symptoms of high cholesterol and requires immediate attention. In general, unless you are already experiencing angina, high cholesterol does not demonstrate any symptoms. The only way to determine high cholesterol is through a blood test.
- Family History (known or unknown)
- Diet high in fats
- Obesity or being overweight
- Diabetes and underactive thyroid gland
- High blood pressure
- Heavy Alcohol use
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Certain diseases such as polycystic ovary syndrome and kidney disease
- Higher levels of hormones in women (birth control pills/pregnancy)
You need to check your cholesterol by taking a blood test.
There are several kinds of cholesterol tests:
- A direct cholesterol test measures LDL only and requires no fasting.
- A simple cholesterol test measures the total cholesterol and the HDL and requries no fasting.
- A fasting cholesterol test measures HDL, LDL and triglycerides. You must fast 9 to 12 hours before this test.
Doctors at St. Vincent’s Regional Heart & Vascular Center can recommend certain lifestyle changes if it is determined you have high cholesterol. These changes include a low-fat diet, an exercise regimen, losing weight and quitting smoking.
If lifestyle changes do not bring down your cholesterol sufficiently, our heart experts may prescribe medications such as statins to either lower your LDL and triglycerides, or raise your HDL.
To find a St. Vincent’s physician who can discuss your health concerns or those of a loved one, please click on our FIND A DOCTOR tool and search by specialty, practice, location or keyword. We’re here to help you locate the medical expert you need.
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