Despite the enormous risks, millions of Americans continue to ignore their dangerously high cholesterol levels. Approximately 16 percent of the U.S.’s adult population have high cholesterol levels over 240 mg/dL, which makes them twice as likely of developing heart disease than individuals with lower levels, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even the national adult average cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL is borderline of placing even more Americans in the high risk of heart disease category. Considering that roughly 20 percent of all strokes and more than 50 percent of all heart attacks are linked to high cholesterol, according to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization, it becomes even more apparent that Americans need to start taking their cholesterol more seriously.
Fortunately, high cholesterol is only one potential risk factor for stroke or heart attack, and it can be successfully managed. Knowing how to differentiate good cholesterol from bad can help individuals better manage their cholesterol levels, but let’s first start with the basics.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that circulates throughout your bloodstream, but only some of your body’s cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. The liver produces the majority of the cholesterol found in the body. Cholesterol does possess some beneficial uses to the body, including hormone creation and helping blood cells function properly. It’s only when the bloodstream contains too much cholesterol that it begins to exert a negative affect on a person’s overall health. While there are several types of cholesterol that circulate throughout the body, most doctors choose only to focus on two specific types.
More commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol,” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) can clog arteries and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease when found in high levels in the body. Doctors recommend keeping the levels of LDL in the bloodstream below 100 mg/dL, and lower than 70 mg/dL for individuals with heart disease.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so called “good cholesterol,” actually attaches to bad cholesterol, and filters it out of the body through the liver. Doctors recommend a minimum of 60 mg/dL of HDL in the body to help reduce the levels of LDL in the body. A third substance, triglycerides, while technically not a type of cholesterol, can still increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, and doctors recommend keeping your levels below 150 mg/dL.
So when you hear the about the risks associated with high cholesterol, the term is a bit of a misnomer. What you should focus more on is the keeping the levels of LDL and triglycerides low in the body, while trying to increase the levels of HDL in the body. This means that a person’s total cholesterol level matters less than what percentage of their cholesterol is good or bad. If you possess a cholesterol level of over 200, but half that number is from HDL, than your cholesterol levels are much better than someone’s who has a level of 190 that consists of only 30 mg/dLs of HDL.
Unlike HDL, which gets filtered out of the body through the liver, LDL and triglycerides remain in the bloodstream, and begin to form fat deposits along the walls of your arteries. Given enough time, and these deposits begin to restrict the follow of blood throughout the body. If these fatty deposits begin to form along the coronary arteries, they could cause a decrease in the flow of blood to the heart, which leads to angina (commonly referred to as a heart attack.)
The problem with high cholesterol is that it doesn’t cause any noticeable outward symptoms until it’s too late. A 2007 study conducted by the CDC found that 21.5 percent of Americans have never had their cholesterol checked, and were unaware if they were at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. That people don’t feel the affects of high cholesterol also makes it more likely they might not maintain a regular treatment regimen even if placed on one by their doctor. Unlike taking medication for a bad back or severe allergies, high cholesterol medication doesn’t cause a person to feel any better, which could lead them to neglect taking their pills regularly. The fact a person could live with high cholesterol for 30 or 40 years with no noticeable effects also makes it easier for individuals to ignore their cholesterol levels at a younger age.
The long term effects of cholesterol are undeniable. Staying aware of your cholesterol levels, and maintaining an open dialogue with your doctor about treatment options and long term goals for lowering your levels is the key to helping maintain your cardiovascular health for years to come. The question that remain is whether Americans are ready to take steps to improve on their high cholesterol levels.
Timothy Lemke writes about current issues in health for the blog of Dr. Derrik Stark, a dentist in Ridgefield Washington at Smile Family Dental.
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