It’s time to get proactive about cholesterol Iredell Health System

Nearly 94 million Americans have borderline high or high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even though it’s so common, many people have no idea they have high cholesterol until it causes a serious medical emergency. You cannot “feel” high cholesterol. It attacks silently without any signs or symptoms.

The only way to know if you have unhealthy cholesterol levels is to have your primary care provider do a blood test. Otherwise, you may only find out when it’s too late – when you have a heart attack or stroke. It’s time to get proactive about your cholesterol health.

Understanding Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in your body’s cells. It is important to note that not all cholesterol is bad. Your body actually needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function properly.

“Cholesterol is needed to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help digestion,” said Veronica Bradley, a physician assistant at Harmony Medical Care.

Your liver and other body cells make all the cholesterol your body needs, but you can absorb excess cholesterol through the animal-based foods you eat.

There are two types of cholesterol: HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). HDL is known as good or healthy cholesterol because it carries excess cholesterol from the blood back to the liver where it is processed or removed from the body.

“HDL cholesterol can actually help reduce the risk of heart disease. Higher levels of HDL help remove other unhealthy cholesterol from the blood,” Bradley said.

On the other hand, LDL is called “bad” or bad cholesterol.

According to Bradley, when too much LDL cholesterol circulates in your blood, it forms with other substances to create plaque that builds up and sticks to the inside of your arteries, obstructing blood flow. This process of plaque buildup is called atherosclerosis.

These narrowed or blocked arteries can prevent blood from reaching the heart, brain, or other vital organs, putting you at risk for life-threatening health problems.

“High cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is an umbrella term that includes coronary artery disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease,” Bradley said.

Checking your levels
Because high cholesterol has no symptoms, the only way to know if you have it is to get a complete cholesterol test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile. All adults age 20 and older should have a cholesterol test every four to six years.

A cholesterol test checks your LDL, HDL, triglycerides (another form of fat in the blood), and your total cholesterol. Your total cholesterol measures the total amount of cholesterol in your blood and consists of LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels.

Healthy cholesterol levels can look different from person to person depending on risk factors, lifestyle, age and gender. But as a general guideline, your total cholesterol level must be below 200 mg/dL to be considered in the healthy range. Your provider will also review your LDL, HDL, and triglycerides to determine if you need to improve your cholesterol levels.

“We look at a variety of factors when starting treatment for high cholesterol, such as age and risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension and a history of heart attack and stroke. For those who have risk factors, we start treatment when LDL is higher than 70 mg/dL. Other times we treat when the LDL rises above 180-190 mg/dL,” Bradley said.

Lowering your levels
Fortunately, if your cholesterol test results don’t come back as expected, there are ways to control and lower your unhealthy levels.

Healthy lifestyle changes are essential to protect yourself from high cholesterol and avoid heart attack and stroke. This means getting regular exercise, not smoking and choosing a heart-healthy diet.

“Good ways to control your cholesterol levels are to reduce trans fat and saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in red meat and whole milk products. It’s good to eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and increase soluble fiber,” Bradley said.

A heart-healthy diet is rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and includes low-fat sources of protein and calcium. You should also try to limit baked goods, fried foods and fast food that are available commercially. When in doubt, check the Nutrition Facts label for information on saturated fat and trans fat content.

Bradley also recommends doing at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three or four times a week to increase your healthy HDL and lower your LDL.

“Your provider can always help you discuss the right plan to lower your cholesterol levels. This will include healthy foods to include and bad foods to avoid. Your provider may also discuss adding cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, if appropriate,” Bradley said.

“The key takeaway is that high cholesterol levels show no signs or symptoms, so it’s important to schedule a visit with your provider to monitor your levels to stay healthy,” she added.

Bradley practices at Harmony Medical Care, located at 3210 Harmony Highway, and is accepting new patients. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Veronica Bradley, PA-C, please call 704-546-7587.

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