High cholesterol is a very common health condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 38% of American adults have high cholesterol, and 7% of children and adolescents have elevated cholesterol levels. Dr. Jason Galicia, Medical Director at Keystone Internal Medicine, discusses the dangers of high cholesterol as well as treatments in today’s article.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a substance that is found in the blood that is needed for good health. It is an integral part of cellular function.
What are healthy levels?
The usual lipid panel ordered by healthcare providers is broken down into several categories: total cholesterol which should be below 200, LDL cholesterol which should be below 130, HDL cholesterol which should be above 60, triglycerides which should be below 150, and non-HDL cholesterol which should be below 160, or lower, if the patient is at risk of heart attacks or strokes.
Are there any symptoms if you have elevated cholesterol?
High cholesterol, by itself, is not always a reason to worry as there are no symptoms. Having high cholesterol is just one of many things that can increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes. Other factors that increase your risk include: cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, having a parent or sibling who got heart disease at a young age (younger than 55 for men and younger than 65 for women), a diet that is not heart healthy (diets low in fiber and high in saturated fats, etc.) and lastly, older age.
If you are at high risk of heart attacks and strokes, having high cholesterol is a problem. On the other hand, if you are at low risk, having high cholesterol might not lead to treatment.
What problems can untreated high cholesterol cause?
The problem is, people sometimes have too much cholesterol. Compared with people with normal cholesterol, people with high cholesterol have a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and other health problems. The higher your cholesterol, the higher your risk of these problems.
How can you lower the numbers?
According to the National Lipid Association, not everyone who has high cholesterol needs medicines. Your healthcare provider will decide if you need them based on your age, family history and other health concerns.
You should probably take a cholesterol-lowering medicine called a statin if you had a heart attack or stroke, have known heart disease, have diabetes, have a condition called peripheral artery disease (when the arteries in your legs get clogged with fatty deposits) or have an abdominal aortic aneurysm (widening of the main artery in the belly). Most people with any of the conditions listed above should take a statin no matter what their cholesterol level is. If your healthcare provider puts you on a statin, stay on it. The medicine might not make you feel any different, but it can help prevent heart attacks, strokes and death.
Are there ways to lower your cholesterol without medication?
Yes, you can lower your cholesterol some by avoiding red meat, butter, fried foods, cheese and other foods that have a lot of saturated fat, losing weight (if you are overweight) and being more active. Even if these steps do little to change your cholesterol, they can improve your health in many ways.
What does a heart-healthy eating plan include?
A heart-healthy eating plan has lots of plant foods like legumes (cooked beans, peas and lentils), nuts, fruits and vegetables, and also lean protein foods, low-fat dairy foods and healthy fats. Eat more foods rich in soluble fiber like beans, peas, lentils, apples, oranges, pears, sweet potatoes, oats, oat bran and ground flax seeds. These changes can help lower your LDL levels and decrease your overall cardiovascular risk. Replace foods high in saturated fat with foods that contain healthy fats. Use canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, sesame and soybean oils in place of butter and coconut oil. Try incorporating avocados, nuts and seeds into meals and snacks. Avoid regular ground beef, bacon, sausage, fatty cuts of meat and fast food hamburgers. Avoid foods with trans fat by not buying foods with “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list. Trans fats are also found in deep fried foods.
Avoid drinks sweetened with sugar like soda, sweetened tea, fruit punch and sport drinks, and sugary foods like donuts, cookies, pies, pastries and candy. This can also help you achieve a healthy weight. Try to exercise 150 to 300 minutes each week. You can do this by walking for 30-45 minutes five to seven days per week. If you have not been exercising at all, start with just a few minutes of light activity at a time. Limit your cholesterol intake to less than 200 mg per day. Limit egg yolks to two or three a week. Instead, choose egg whites and egg substitutes—they don’t have cholesterol. Avoid organ meats like liver and gizzards and fatty cuts of red meat (beef, pork and lamb).
In all age groups, lifestyle modification is the primary intervention. By making healthier choices and getting regular medical care, you can increase your chances of living a long, healthy life.
This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.