Most women have seen the media campaigns and know that heart disease is the number one cause of death among women. Likewise, most women know that healthy cholesterol levels are key to maintaining heart health. But how far does the general public’s knowledge extend beyond those points? How does the average woman make cholesterol and heart health part of her daily life? A little knowledge goes a long way…
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the cells and the bloodstream. It protects the cell membrane and aids in hormone production. That’s right, cholesterol serves an important purpose in the body! Too little cholesterol increases the likelihood of hormone imbalance. Too much increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Good Cholesterol vs. Bad
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), known as the bad form of cholesterol, can build up in the arteries and form plaque. If a clot forms in an artery narrowed by plaque it can cause a heart attack or an ischemic stroke. Patients with LDL levels lower than 130 are generally considered to be at low risk for heart attack or stroke, while levels of 160 or above are considered high.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are considered good cholesterol. High levels of HDL actually protect against heart disease, while drastically reduced HDL levels increase the risk. Ideally, HDL levels should be above 40, although these levels tend to be slightly higher in women than in men.
Total cholesterol refers to these two numbers added together. More important than the final number, however, is the breakdown of HDL and LDL.
What are Triglycerides?
Triglyceride is a form of fat, and it can be derived from food or produced by the body. People with high triglyceride levels tend to have high LDL cholesterol and low HDL levels, and thus are at much higher risk for heart attack or stroke. Triglyceride levels of 200mg/dL and above are considered high and may require treatment.
Cholesterol Screening and Treatments
The American Heart Association recommends all adults 20 years and older have a fasting lipid profile performed once every five years. Older individuals who are at high risk should be tested annually. Testing can be done in a laboratory on a physician’s order, and cholesterol screenings are often offered as a service at health fairs and pharmacies, providing easy access to the general public.
To reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, a lifestyle change is usually the first course of action. Reducing saturated fats and trans fats in the diet and adding at least thirty minutes of exercise daily can help, as can increasing fiber intake. Certain nutritional supplements may be beneficial and are often preferable to starting medications. Cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) may be considered for patients whose levels do not improve with lifestyle modifications.
Lee Lavender is a pharmacist at Hospital Discount Pharmacy in Edmond, where cholesterol screenings are offered as part of their clinical services program. She counsels patients on the proper use of cholesterol-lowering medications and supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids and garlic. Statins are generally well-tolerated, though headache and digestive distress are common initial side effects. She notes that these issues are often temporary.
I would be remiss not to mention the potential for liver damage that statins may pose in some patients. Lavender instructs patients to watch for muscle weakness and flu-like symptoms during the initial few weeks of treatment—such problems can be signs of reduced liver function. With careful observation and periodic testing of liver enzymes, damage to the liver can typically be avoided, though doctors and patients should proceed with caution. Understanding cholesterol and its role in the body is a big part of maintaining heart health. For more information, contact a health care professional or visit www.AmericanHeart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1516.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions. She holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in English from the University of Central Oklahoma. Shannon lives in Edmond with her husband and two daughters.