Living Well — Keep cholesterol in check |

Living Well — Keep cholesterol in check

Memorial Regional Health staff/For Craig Press
Dietary changes are among the steps people can take to lower their cholesterol.
Getty Images

It isn’t news that cholesterol levels are directly tied to heart disease risk. The higher your cholesterol, the higher your risk. While there are some genetic components to cholesterol that are out of your control, there are ways you can lower your cholesterol. The first is simply knowing your cholesterol numbers.

Start by planning to get your cholesterol checked during Memorial Regional Health’s March into Health event — an annual offering of low-cost lab tests and health screens. If you learn your cholesterol is higher than 200, it’s time to take some action. According to the Mayo Clinic, total cholesterol levels should ideally be lower than 200 mg/dL. Borderline high runs from 200 to 239 mg/dL, and high cholesterol is 240 mg/dL or higher.

According to Harvard Health, approximately 14 percent of Americans fall into the high category. By taking medication and/or making dietary and exercise changes, you can lower your cholesterol levels. Harvard Health states that, for every 10 percent drop in your cholesterol level, you decrease your risk for a heart attack by 20 to 30 percent. That’s worth the effort!

Lab tests measure LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels to get a total cholesterol number. The goal is to keep your LDL, or bad cholesterol levels, low and boost your HDL, or good cholesterol levels, as best you can.

Lifestyle changes

Eating a healthy diet low in salt; high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; high in good fats, including healthy oils, nuts and seed; and limited in animal fats helps lower your LDL, or bad cholesterol. Other ways to lower your LDL cholesterol include maintaining a healthy weight, drinking in moderation, and not smoking. High blood pressure also plays a role in heart disease.

“Exercise and surprising, liquor — as in two ounces of hard liquor or eight ounces of wine each day — are the only two documented ways to raise your good HDL cholesterol,” said Dr. Gerald Myers, MRH cardiologist. “Exercise helps break down plaque in your arteries.”

Cholesterol creates plaque

You may wonder how cholesterol and heart disease are related. Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in fats in your blood. Your body produces some cholesterol; other cholesterol, you get from food. Some cholesterol is beneficial, but too much can create fatty deposits in your blood vessels, called plaque. As plaque builds up, it blocks your arteries and limits blood flow to your heart and brain.

“With less than a 70 percent narrowing of blood vessels, the heart can extract enough blood, and there are no symptoms of heart disease. Beyond 70 percent, people experience symptoms, usually during times of extreme stress,” Myers said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, heart disease due to plaque build-up in your arteries can cause shortness of breath, chest tightness, pressure or pain, pain or numbness in your arms and legs, and pain in your back, abdomen, throat, jaw, and neck. If you experience symptoms, your doctor might recommend a nuclear stress test, which can be done at MRH.

“We used to think that all cholesterol was based on the deposit of fat in the inner lining of blood vessels. Now, we know that almost 50 percent of the time, it’s due to systemic inflammation. Inflammation helps create plaque. That means if you have a chronic inflammatory process, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, allergies and asthma, your risk for heart disease is greater,” Myers said.

The genetic equation

Myers also said some people are genetically programmed to produce more cholesterol. In this case, eating less cholesterol is not that effective, as your body will make up the difference by making more. That’s where medication comes in.

“I call it your body’s cholesterolstat, like a thermostat. It’s the level of cholesterol that your body genetically wants to maintain. Statins are medications that block the body’s ability to break down and use cholesterol. That’s how they help lower cholesterol levels,” Myers added.

Start by getting your cholesterol levels checked at the MRH March into Health event, and make a note to take part in MRH’s free heart disease risk assessment, offered during March. For more information on these events, call 970-826-3122.