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There is a lot of conversation around the topic of high cholesterol, but what is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a fat, also called a lipid, that your body needs to work properly. It’s crucial in the manufacture of hormones and vitamin D. However, too much cholesterol, especially when it comes from unhealthy food choices, can clog blood vessels and lead to heart attack or stroke. The two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells are low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque. HDL cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 71 million American adults (33.5%) have high “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, and only half seek treatment.
There are a number of factors that affect cholesterol levels in your blood—so while no single factor causes high cholesterol, there are a number of things that do contribute to high cholesterol. There are some factors that you can control, and some that you cannot. Among the things that you can control are:
Among the factors that you cannot control are:
The following factors increase your risk of high cholesterol:
Cholesterol levels are determined through a blood test that measures your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood). A small sample of blood will be drawn from your arm and sent to be analyzed in a laboratory. Your doctor will tell you if you should fast) before your blood test. If you aren’t fasting when the blood sample is drawn, only the values for total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol will be usable. That’s because the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol level and triglycerides can be affected by what you’ve recently consumed. Your test report will show your cholesterol level in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Your doctor will interpret your cholesterol numbers based on other risk factorssuch as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure.
High cholesterol doesn’t have any symptoms. The only way to detect it is with a blood test. Since high cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms, often the first sign of this condition is a heart attack, a stroke or a transient ischemic aattack—which is a mini stroke that passes quickly. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t wait. Call 911 or other emergency services.
High cholesterol levels can lead to hardening of the arteries, known as arteriolosclerosis. This occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries and form hard structures called plaques. Over time, these plaques can block the arteries and cause heart disease, stroke, and other symptoms or problems throughout the body. Disorders that are passed down through families often lead to higher cholesterol levels that are harder to control. A change in diet and medications may be able to control cholesterol levels.
No matter what is causing your heart’s health to be compromised, there are things you can do to improve it:
Because high cholesterol levels are a known precursor to more serious heart diseases, doctors generally screen for high cholesterol. Your doctor will most likely take a blood sample at your annual physical or write a prescription to get blood taken in a lab, where they will be able to determine your blood cholesterol level.
Especially if you have high cholesterol, you should take preventative measures against more serious heart disease. These include:
For patients with high cholesterol, medications are most often prescribed along with diet and exercise regimens. These medications include:
Statins, which block the production of cholesterol in the liver, are the most common and effective medication used to treat high cholesterol. Statins include:
Side effects of statins include:
Aspirin. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke or are at high risk for either, your doctor may prescribe aspirin therapy. Regular doses of aspirin can help thin blood and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Side effects of aspirin include:
Supplements. The following list of supplements is offered by the University of Maryland Medical Center. Always check with your cardiologist or primary doctor before adding supplements to your regimen for treating and preventing heart failure. Many people with heart conditions take multiple medications including blood-thinning mediations, blood pressure medications, and others. The supplements below may interact with these (and other medications) and may not be right for people with certain medical conditions.
Stress reduction practices. Since stress is associated with heart disease, it’s prudent to try techniques to help reduce it. The following methods have been shown to reduce stress in some people:
If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may want to follow these simple steps to reduce your overall risk of heart attack and more serious heart diseases:
Be open with your family and friends about your condition and consider joining a support group or on-line forum.
Since high cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms, often the first sign of this condition is a heart attack, a stroke, or a transient ischemic attack (TIA)—which is a mini stroke that passes quickly.
If you have any of these symptoms, don’t wait. Call 911 or other emergency services.
You should not hesitate to call 911 if you are experiencing any of these symptoms that come on suddenly. You could be having a STROKE.
In addition to your primary care physician, you may want to add a cardiologist (heart specialist), lipidologist (cholesterol management specialist), and a dietitian (nutritional expert) to your care team.
You will probably have different questions to ask your doctor depending on your heart condition. Be open about all your concerns. If you’re having difficulty focusing, bring along a friend or family member. Below you’ll find general questions you might want to ask your doctor about heart disease as suggested by the American Heart Association.
QUESTIONS ABOUT MEDICATION
QUESTIONS ABOUT DIET
QUESTIONS ABOUT EXERCISE
American Heart Association (AHA) offers you information about all heart conditions and includes an interactive library and an on-line high blood pressure calculator.
American Stroke Association (ASA) will give you a connection to local services, a free stroke magazine, and news and tips on how to adjust to life after stroke.
The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is devoted to women. You can get information about chapters in your state. It also offers listings of health care professionals who specialize in heart issues.
Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) will help you find a specialist who deals with heart rhythm issues like atrial fibrillation as well as a glossary of terms and other resources.
Heart Disease Support Groups. You may have to sign in.
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