According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 94 million Americans have borderline or high cholesterol. And even though it’s so common, many people have no idea they have high cholesterol until it causes a serious medical emergency. You cannot “feel” high cholesterol. It attacks silently, with no signs or symptoms.
The only way to tell if you have unhealthy cholesterol levels is to have your GP do a blood test. Otherwise, you might not realize it until it’s too late—when you’re having a heart attack or stroke. It’s time to actively take care of your cholesterol health.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in your body’s cells. It’s important to note that not all cholesterol is bad. Your body actually needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function properly.
“Cholesterol is necessary to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help with digestion,” said Veronica Bradley, physician assistant at Harmony Medical Care.
Your liver and other body cells produce all of the cholesterol your body needs, but you can get excess cholesterol from the animal foods you eat.
There are two types of cholesterol: HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein). HDL is known as good or healthy cholesterol because it carries excess cholesterol from the bloodstream back to the liver, where it is reprocessed or removed from the body.
“HDL cholesterol may actually help lower the risk of heart disease. Higher HDL levels help clear other unhealthy cholesterol from the blood,” Bradley said.
On the other hand, LDL is referred to as “lousy” or bad cholesterol.
When too much LDL cholesterol is circulating in your blood, Bradley says it forms with other substances to form plaque, which builds up and sticks to the inside of your arteries, impeding blood flow. This process of plaque formation is called atherosclerosis.
These narrowed or blocked arteries can prevent blood from reaching your heart, brain, or other vital organs, putting you at life-threatening health risk.
“High cholesterol puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease, which is an umbrella term that includes coronary heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease,” Bradley said.
Have your values checked
Because high cholesterol has no symptoms, the only way to know if you have it is with a complete cholesterol test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile. All adults age 20 and older should have a cholesterol test every four to six years.
A cholesterol test checks your LDL, HDL, triglycerides (another form of fat in the blood), and total cholesterol. Your total cholesterol measures the total amount of cholesterol in your blood and is made up of your LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels.
Healthy cholesterol levels can vary from person to person depending on risk factors, lifestyle, age and gender. But as a general guide, yours total Cholesterol levels should be below 200 mg/dL to be considered a healthy range. Your provider will also look at your LDL, HDL, and triglycerides to determine if you need to improve your cholesterol levels.
“We consider several factors when we start treating high cholesterol, such as age, and risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and history of heart attack and stroke. For patients with risk factors, we start treatment when the LDL level is above 70 mg/dL. In other cases, we treat when the LDL rises above 180-190 mg/dL,” Bradley said.
Lower your levels
Fortunately, if your cholesterol test results aren’t coming in as you expected, there are ways to control and lower your unhealthy levels.
Changing a healthy lifestyle is essential to protecting yourself from high cholesterol and avoiding heart attack and stroke. That means exercising regularly, not smoking, and opting for a heart-healthy diet.
“A good way to control your cholesterol levels would be to reduce trans fats and saturated fats. Saturated fats are found in red meat and whole dairy products. It’s good to eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and increase soluble fiber,” Bradley said.
A heart-healthy diet is rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and includes low-fat sources of protein and calcium. You should also try to limit commercially available baked goods, fried foods, and fast foods. When in doubt, check the nutrition label for information on saturated and trans fat levels.
Bradley also recommends getting in at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three or four times a week to increase your healthy HDL and lower your LDL.
“Your doctor can always help you discuss the right cholesterol-lowering plan. This includes healthy foods that should be included and bad foods that should be avoided. Your doctor may also discuss adding cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, as appropriate,” Bradley said.
“The key takeaway is that high cholesterol doesn’t show any signs or symptoms, so it’s important to schedule a visit with your provider to monitor your levels and stay healthy,” she added.
Bradley practices at Harmony Medical Care at 3210 Harmony Highway and accepts new patients. If you would like to make an appointment with Veronica Bradley, PA-C, please call 704-546-7587.