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Fall 2012 - Cholesterol

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body. There are two major types of cholesterol — LDL, low-density lipoprotein, and HDL, high-density lipoprotein. According to Dr. John Kelley, a cardiologist with WakeMed Physician Practices - Carolina Cardiology, LDL cholesterol is commonly known as “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in blood vessels and block arteries. HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol because it has the opposite effect; the higher your HDL cholesterol, the lower your risk of developing blocked arteries.

How is cholesterol measured and what is normal?

Cholesterol is measured with a lipid panel. It’s a blood test, conducted after a 12- to 14-hour fast, that measures both types of cholesterol as well as triglycerides, which are a type of fat found in your blood that can increase your risk of heart disease.

According to Dr. Kelley, desirable total cholesterol levels, which are a combination of LDL and HDL levels, are less than 200 mg/dL. Total cholesterol levels between 200 and 239 are considered borderline high. Anything 240 or above is considered high cholesterol.

Specifically for LDL cholesterol, ideal is less than 130 mg/dL. HDL should be greater than 50 for women and greater than 40 in men, according to Dr. Kelley. Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL.

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

According to Dr. Kelley, there really aren’t any symptoms of high cholesterol. “That’s part of the problem,” he said. “It does its harm silently, and the first symptom may be a heart attack or stroke or a painful blocked leg artery. There are no symptoms until some event like that takes place.”

That’s why it’s so important to have your cholesterol checked on a regular basis. The current recommendation is that everyone over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years. Men over 45 and women over 50 may need to have their cholesterol checked every year or two, especially if they have a family history or other risk factors, said Dr. Kelley.

How is high cholesterol treated?

The first treatment for high cholesterol is to make lifestyle changes, said Dr. Kelley. That means increasing exercise so that you exert yourself most days of the week for 30 to 60 minutes. In addition, someone with high cholesterol should watch what they eat. Dr. Kelley said that the ideal diet would be low in fatty foods like certain meats, dairy products, egg yolks and shellfish, and higher in fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts and whole grains.

“Lifestyle issues should be addressed first, and that can bring the elevated cholesterol down to normal values in quite a few people,” said Dr. Kelley. “Medications should be used for patients who are already manifesting cardiovascular disease or who have a lot of risk factors.”

This article origionally appeared in Heart to Heart magazine, a magazine specifically for heart patients and their families.  Suscribe to Heart to Heart today.