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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found throughout our bodies. Blood cholesterol is made in our liver to make cell membranes, hormones, and vitamin D. The liver supplies the body with all the cholesterol it requires. Additional cholesterol is obtained through the food we eat. Animal products such as fish, poultry, meat, dairy products, and eggs contain cholesterol.

The National Institute of Health recommends getting your cholesterol checked at least once every five years. If your cholesterol is high or if you have a family history of heart disease more frequent monitoring is recommended.

What is the difference between "good" and "bad" cholesterol?

Not all cholesterol is the same. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) have different functions. LDL-cholesterol carries cholesterol in the blood. When too much cholesterol is found in the blood, buildup in the arteries results. This is why LDL-cholesterol if often labeled the "bad" cholesterol. High-density lipoproteins are termed the "good" cholesterol because they remove fatty buildup from the blood.

Often when cholesterol is measured, a cholesterol ratio is obtained. This ratio is composed of your total cholesterol level divided by your HDL level. This number gives an overview of a person’s risk for heart disease.

Why should I care if my cholesterol is high?

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Blood cholesterol levels are an important indicator of a person’s risk of getting coronary heart disease. A high cholesterol level increases the risk. When too much cholesterol is found in the bloodstream buildup occurs and the arteries narrow. Blood flow is blocked or slowed down by the narrow arteries and the heart gets less oxygen. Pain in the chest, heart attack, or death can result from this decreased oxygen supply. It has been estimated that 1.25 million heart attacks occur each year in the United States.

What can I do to lower my cholesterol level?

You can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering your cholesterol level. Maintaining a healthy weight and refraining from smoking have been proven beneficial in controlling heart disease and cholesterol. A low fat diet and increased physical activity can lower levels of LDL-cholesterol and increase levels of HDL-cholesterol. Consult with your physician before beginning any exercise program.

Medication interventions are often used if exercise and dietary changes are not decreasing LDL levels. Statins, for example, are prescription medications that are commonly used to lower cholesterol levels. It is important to contact your physician if you have concerns about your cholesterol levels.

Desired Cholesterol Levels

Total cholesterol (TC) HDL-cholesterol TC – HDL ratio
Less that 200 35-100 mg./dl. 4.0 or less

Sources: National Institute of Health and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Printed with permission from Amy T. Meyers, RN, MA / HCMS-II

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