Playing By The Numbers (To Lower Your Cholesterol)

When someone says you are one in a million, it is often a compliment. However, if you are one in the million of people who have heart attacks each year, the news is not so good.

Having high blood cholesterol can increase your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. In fact, the higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your chance of heart disease or stroke. When high blood cholesterol is combined with other risk factors, your risk of heart problems increases even more.

"Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood," says Regional Heart Center Cardiologist, John Winterton, M.D.   "When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and as the arteries narrow, blood flow to the heart is slowed or blocked. If there is not enough blood and oxygen supplied to the heart, the heart muscle weakens, causing chest pain, a heart attack, or even death," Winterton adds.

High blood cholesterol does not produce symptoms. That is why it is important to have your cholesterol level checked. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that everyone age 20 and older have a fasting "lipoprotein profile" at least once every five years. This test is done after 9 to 12 hours without food, liquids, or medications.

A "lipoprotein profile" gives information about:

  • total cholesterol
  • low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad cholesterol" - the primary source of cholesterol buildup
  • high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good cholesterol" - which helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries
  • triglycerides - another form of fat in the blood.

Generally, the higher your LDL level and the more risk factors you have for heart disease, the greater your chance of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. In addition to a high LDL level, the risk factors for heart disease include:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure (140/90 mmHG or higher or on blood pressure medication)
  • low HDL cholesterol (40 mg/dL or lower)
  • family history of early heart disease
  • age (45 or older if you are a man/55 or older if you are a woman)

You can lower your cholesterol by:

  • eating fewer high fat foods (particularly those high in saturated fat)
  • reducing the amount of cholesterol in your diet
  • losing weight, if you are overweight
  • increasing the amount of soluble fiber in your diet
  • adding certain food products that contain plant stanols or sterols, and
  • exercising regularly

If drugs are needed to lower your cholesterol, it is still important to eat a healthy diet, control your weight, and exercise. These activities will reduce the amount of medicine you need and lower your overall risk of heart disease.