As a cardiologist, it’s my job to make sure my patients manage all aspects of their heart health. That includes helping them to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Talk with your doctor about heart-health risk factors and receiving frequent cholesterol tests. It's important to keep your cholesterol in check — and prevent heart problems down the line.
There’s a lot of information available about cholesterol and it's hard to tell what’s fact versus fiction. I’d like to help clear any confusion you have and provide you important facts about cholesterol.
Not all cholesterol is bad for you.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that circulates in the blood. The body needs some cholesterol for jobs like making hormones and building cells. You want higher levels of "good" cholesterol called HDL (high-density lipoprotein).
When you have too much "bad" cholesterol, or LDL (low-density lipoprotein), it can cause buildup known as plaque. This buildup restricts blood flow and raises the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Regular cholesterol checks are important throughout all stages of life.
Everyone should have their cholesterol checked often — regardless of age or health status. The American Heart Association recommends people between ages 9 and 11 have their first cholesterol check. Adults 20 and older should have a cholesterol test at least every 4 to 6 years, but may need more tests if they are on medications or have other risk factors.
I work with my patients to let them know how often they should have their cholesterol levels checked. Getting checked is easy and requires a simple blood test.
Even young, healthy people can get high cholesterol.
It's true that the risk for high cholesterol goes up with age. As you get older, your metabolism changes and your liver does not remove LDL cholesterol as well. Having more body weight can also increase risks by slowing down the body's ability to remove LDL cholesterol.
Yet, even young and healthy people can have cholesterol problems. Especially if they have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. A person's genetics may also make it harder for their body to remove LDL cholesterol. They may have higher cholesterol even if they are active and lead healthy lives.
High cholesterol doesn't cause symptoms.
You can’t feel high cholesterol. That’s why it’s so important to have regular blood tests to check your levels. Cholesterol tests can help you and your doctor see if your levels are unhealthy. This can help you take action before they lead to more serious problems, like a heart attack or stroke.
Simple dietary changes can improve your cholesterol levels.
I tell my high cholesterol patients to make some changes to their diet. One of these changes is to limit their intake of saturated fat and trans fat, which increase LDL levels. Foods that are high in fat include cheese, whole milk, and fatty meats (e.g., bacon and rib cuts). While trans fats are in packaged snacks or desserts.
I tell my patients to choose more healthy foods, such as olive oil, nuts, fish, eggs, yogurt and avocados. I also tell my patients to eat more foods with fiber like fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, and beans. Fiber can help lower LDL cholesterol while also bringing HDL levels up.
Some people need medication to manage high cholesterol.
By eating better and exercising more, many of my patients can lower their cholesterol. But for others, these changes may not be enough. In those cases, I prescribe cholesterol medications called “statins.” These drugs may lower cholesterol to a safe level and support your healthy lifestyle.
Healthy lifestyle habits are still important even if you’re taking cholesterol medication.
I remind my patients on cholesterol-lowering medications that the drugs aren’t cure-alls. You can get more benefits by having better habits like eating a healthy diet and exercising more. And if they smoke, they should quit, as smoking lowers HDL cholesterol and raises LDL.
Certain over-the-counter medications may be helpful in lowering cholesterol.
There are other medications like flaxseed and garlic that can lower cholesterol. Patients should talk to their doctor to see if this is a good option for them.
The bottom line
High cholesterol is dangerous, and it affects everyone. A cholesterol test can tell you where you stand and whether you need to take steps to bring your levels down.
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