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Commit to Keeping Your Cholesterol in Check

  • Category: General Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Matt Gougler

September is National Cholesterol Education Month, and ATRIO Health Plans is taking this opportunity to increase everyone’s cholesterol IQ and to emphasize the importance of keeping cholesterol levels in check.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in cell walls throughout the body. Cholesterol’s job responsibilities include making hormones, bile acids, vitamin D and a host of other substances. The body produces all the cholesterol it needs, but sometimes we humans raise our cholesterol levels by making unhealthy food choices and leading couch-potato lifestyles. Factors beyond our control – such as having a liver that overproduces cholesterol – also can send levels skyward.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 71-million American adults have high low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), which increases their risk of heart disease. Heart disease is the number-one killer of both men and women in the United States, accounting for some 800,000 deaths annually.

Cholesterol by the Numbers

Starting at age 20, everyone should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years via a blood test called a lipoprotein profile. The resulting profile includes:

  • Total cholesterol level;
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol – the primary culprit of cholesterol buildup and artery blockages;
  • HDL (good) cholesterol – helps prevent the buildup of cholesterol in arteries;
  • Triglycerides – high levels can increase the risk of heart disease.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute compiled the following cholesterol-numbers table:

HDL (good) cholesterol protects against heart disease, so for HDL, higher numbers are better. A level less than 40 mg/dL is low and considered a major risk factor for developing heart disease. Conversely, HDL levels of 60 mg/dL or higher help lower heart-disease risk. Triglycerides also can pose a threat. Levels that are borderline high (150-199 mg/dL) – or high (200 mg/dL or more) – may warrant treatment.

Medication can Make a Major Difference

Some people can impact their cholesterol levels through lifestyle adjustments – eating healthfully, losing weight, exercising regularly and quitting smoking. Others, however, may require cholesterol-lowering medications such as:

  • Statins – effectively lower LDL cholesterol.
  • Bile acid sequestrants – help lower LDL and often are prescribed in conjunction with statins.
  • Nicotinic acid – designed to lower LDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol.
  • Fibrates – goal is to lower triglycerides, but also may raise HDL.
  • Ezetimibe -- lowers LDL by preventing the intestine from absorbing cholesterol.

Studies have shown that statins can quickly reduce bad cholesterol by 50% or more and boost good cholesterol by up to 15%. Users of cholesterol medications generally see significant improvements within two to four weeks after starting treatment. In addition to lowering cholesterol levels, statins appear to also possess anti-inflammatory properties that help stabilize the lining of blood vessels, thus reducing heart-attack risks. Statins additionally contribute to lowered blood pressure.

Approximately 30-million Americans take cholesterol-lowering medications, making them the most prescribed medications nationwide. To reap the benefits of these medications, compliance is crucial. Not only must these medications be taken specifically as directed, but even if desirable cholesterol levels are reached, you must continue taking the cholesterol-lowering medication. If you don’t, it’s extremely likely that your cholesterol levels will increase markedly. On the other hand, for every 10% drop in cholesterol level, the risk of having a heart attack drops by 20% to 30%.