Anybody can develop high cholesterol at any given time in his/her life, and not know it, and because of this it is classified as a “silent killer”. There are some risk factors that make us more susceptible to developing high cholesterol. Some of these factors we have no control over, but there are other risk factors which are definitely under our control. The month of September is recognized as National Cholesterol Education Month; a time when health professionals try to increase awareness on the effects of high cholesterol in the body.
Cholesterol is a waxy like substance that is made in the liver and found only in animal products such as meats, dairy products and eggs. Cholesterol is important to the body for various functions: it is responsible for making Vitamin D, hormones and bile salts which helps in the digestion of fats. The typical diet today has more than enough cholesterol and this is where the problem begins. While cholesterol alone may not cause heart disease, having high cholesterol is definitely a risk factor for developing heart disease later in life. Cholesterol is deposited in the arteries and over time can cause the arteries to become stiff and narrow. The narrowing of the arteries can lead to heart problems because the blood flow to the heart is reduced.
Not all cholesterol is created equally and you may have heard of the “good cholesterol” and the “bad cholesterol”. The Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol” is the main source of cholesterol buildup in the arteries. The higher the LDL, the higher the risk of heart disease; so, we should aim to keep our LDL below 100mg/dL. On the other hand, the High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) or “good cholesterol” helps the body get rid of some of the cholesterol in the body by removing it from the blood and taking it back to the liver where it is processed for excretion. Expert organizations such as the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends having HDL levels of 60mg/dL or higher. The NHLBI also recommends having a total cholesterol level of below 200mg/dL.
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Uncontrollable Risk Factors
- Heredity: everybody makes cholesterol but there are some persons who make much more than is needed. There is no cause for this except that this is something that is imbedded in your genetic makeup which means you have a family history of the disease.
- Age: As we get older, our cholesterol levels naturally start to go up. It begins to rise around age 20 and continues to go up until about age 60 or 65.
- Sex: Before age 50, men’s total cholesterol levels tend to be higher than those of women of the same age—after age 50, the opposite happens. That’s because with menopause, women’s LDL levels often rise.
Controllable Risk Factors
- Diet: Three main nutrients in our diet are responsible for raising our LDL or ‘bad cholesterol’ levels—saturated fat, Trans fat and cholesterol. Of these, saturated fats have been shown to have the most impact on our levels.
- Overweight: Being overweight raises our LDL levels and triglycerides (another kind of fat floating in our blood) but lower our HDL or ‘good cholesterol’ levels.
- Physical activity: There are many benefits to being physically active including helping us to lose weight which helps to raise HDL levels resulting in lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Having high cholesterol levels is a major risk factor for developing heart disease, so it’s important that we know and monitor our cholesterol levels so ask your doctor for a simple blood test.