How high is too high?
You have just gotten the results back from your latest blood work and it shows that your HDL is high and your LDL is low. What does this mean? Is it a good thing? Your doctor says that it is a measurement of your cholesterol. You’ve heard on the news before about how bad cholesterol is for your heart, but what does that have to do with your numbers?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the lipids (fats) of your blood stream. It is essential to building healthy cells, but the concern lies in when you have too much because it increases your risk for heart disease. Fatty deposits develop in blood vessels and they may increase over time. This reduces the opening in your arteries that blood can flow through and prevent it from getting to important organs like your heart or brain putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is carried through the blood attached to proteins and is known as a lipoprotein. There are two types of lipoproteins that we are concerned about. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is consider to be “bad” cholesterol because as it is transported throughout the body, it builds up on the walls of your arteries. This makes them hard and narrow. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) is “good” cholesterol because it picks up excess cholesterol in the body and takes it to the liver to be excreted.
There are no symptoms of having high cholesterol and the only way to find out if you have it is by doing blood work. As of now, there is not a specific age recommended to get screened for high cholesterol. If your test result is normal, than your doctor will have you retest every five years. If it is not normal, they will have you retest more frequently. Your doctor will often order a lipid panel, which shows not only LDL and HDL levels, but total cholesterol and triglycerides (type of fat in blood) levels. It is recommended that you don’t eat or drink anything except water for 9-12 hours before having the test done. For a complete list of a results for each level, please see Fast Facts.
In order to get high cholesterol under control, your doctor will first try to use exercise and diet. They will examine your current diet and activity level and help you devise a plan to improve them. The importance of being honest with your doctor about this is crucial because the plan will not work if it is too hard (you will be more likely to give up). The other concern is that you could be easily injured if you try to do too much too soon. Your doctor will have you follow the plan for a few weeks and then have your levels retested. If for some reason, you are unable to exercise, change your diet or not see results with the changes, your doctor’s next step will be medication. There are different kinds of medicine available to help treat high cholesterol and your doctor will determine which one is best for you.
Preventing high cholesterol is very similar to the treatment by involving diet and exercise. It is important to eat a low salt, heart healthy diet. This means avoiding saturated fats (red meat, processed meats, dairy products that aren’t fat free) and trans fats, which are also known as partially hydrogenated oils, (margarines, commercially baked cookies/crackers). To replace these with healthier fats, try olive or canola oils, avocados, almonds, pecans and walnuts. Limit the amount of overall dietary cholesterol by using lean cuts of meat and skim milk and not having more than seven eggs in a week. Eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables are essential. Also, eating fish, such as salmon, tuna, cod, mackerel, herring and halibut, are good for heart health. Remember to drink in moderation, which means one drink per day for women and 1-2 drinks per day for men. Exercising is the other critical element to prevention. Start at a level you are comfortable with and just keep going…some exercise is better than none. You don’t want to end up injured and then unable to do any. Losing even 5-10 pounds can have a significant impact on your cholesterol and overall health. Another key factor, is to not smoke as this can contribute to hardening and narrowing of your arteries.
You can have normal cholesterol levels and help prevent developing heart disease. For any questions or concerns you have, please consult with your physician. If you would like further information, please visit the American Heart Association’s Cholesterol page at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/Cholesterol_UCM_001089_SubHomePage.jsp