Submitted by Terry Masek, SPHR, Metropolitan Medical Laboratory, PLC, Human Resources Officer
You are often told how to improve your health through advertising, by your doctors, by your family, through articles in health-related magazines and through various other sources of advice. But, for many of us, our best intentions lead to signing up for health programs — and then losing interest before we develop any real changes in our lifestyle. The best way for you to be successful with this challenge is to know exactly what you need to improve. Knowing the condition of your body before you start gives you a baseline and helps you to set goals toward a new and healthy you. One of these baselines is a measure of your cholesterol levels that indicates your risk of developing heart disease.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance naturally produced in the liver and the brain and is also consumed in many of the foods we eat every day. It is essential for the normal function of several systems in the body. However, too much cholesterol can build up, narrowing your arteries — a process called atherosclerosis — and putting you at risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart attack. Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States, accounting for about 600,000 deaths annually.
There are two kinds of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is the “bad” cholesterol because high levels can lead to heart disease and stroke. HDL is the “good” cholesterol because high levels reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Scientists believe that HDL absorbs the bad cholesterol and carries it to the liver, which then flushes it from the body.
Too much cholesterol in your blood is one of the main risk factors for heart disease and stroke — two leading causes of death in the United States. One way to prevent these diseases is to know your personal cholesterol levels and to make the lifestyle changes that will help to get you on the road to better health.
Seventy-one million American adults have high LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. Only one out of every three adults with high LDL cholesterol has the condition under control and less than half of them get treatment. People with high total cholesterol have approximately twice the risk of heart disease as people with optimal levels.
The Importance of Screening
Because high cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms, many people don’t know that their cholesterol is too high — and that they may be living on the brink of a physical setback. Screening is the key to detecting high cholesterol. Your doctor can order a simple blood test to check your cholesterol levels.
The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked every five years. You may need to have your cholesterol checked more often if any of the following statements applies to you:
• Your total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or higher.
• You are a man older than age 45 or a woman older than age 50.
• Your HDL cholesterol is lower than 40 mg/dL.
• You have other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
Children, young adults, and older Americans can have high cholesterol. Elevated levels can develop in early childhood and adolescence — and the risk increases as a person’s weight increases. In this country, more than one-fifth (20 percent) of youth aged 12–19 years have at least one abnormal lipid level. It’s important for children over 2 years of age to have their cholesterol checked if they are overweight/obese, have a family history of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or certain chronic conditions like kidney disease, inflammatory diseases, congenital heart disease or if they are a childhood cancer survivor.
What are Desirable Cholesterol Levels?
• Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
• LDL (“bad” cholesterol): Less than 100 mg/dL
• HDL (“good” cholesterol): 40 mg/dL or higher
• Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
How Can You Prevent or Treat High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol can be controlled through lifestyle changes or, if those changes aren’t enough, through medications. The best ways to deal with unhealthy levels of cholesterol are:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Focus on low-fat, high-fiber foods. Eat more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains. Foods containing polyunsaturated fats can actually lower blood cholesterol levels. Introduce Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, herring, anchovies, tuna, flaxseed, canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, soy nuts and walnuts. Choose whole grain foods like oatmeal, oat bran, and other whole-wheat products. Other healthy food choices include fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, turkey and chicken without skin, lean cuts of meat and corn (instead of flour) tortillas. Bake, broil, or grill foods instead of frying them. Drink water or sugar-free beverages instead of regular soda.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help lower cholesterol. Ideally, you should plan at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise and 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. For those aged 6-17, physical activity should occur for an hour or more each day. Simple walking or bike riding are good ways to increase your activity levels.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help raise your HDL (“good”) cholesterol and lower your triglycerides. Thirty percent of U.S. children are currently overweight or obese.
- Don’t smoke or quit if you do. Smoking lowers your “good” or HDL cholesterol levels. Quitting smoking can increase your HDL levels by as much as 10 percent.
- Follow your doctor’s instructions and stay on your medications, if prescribed, to control your cholesterol.
Start living healthy, guard your heart, and be a better role model for future generations. Making small changes in your lifestyle can help to improve your cholesterol levels: reduce the fat, stop smoking, go for a walk. Take action now to prevent future disease. Make a healthy lifestyle a permanent habit, not an occasional thing.
As Metropolitan Medical Laboratory celebrates our 100th year in 2014, your good health continues to be our passion. Metropolitan Medical Laboratory, PLC is one of the largest accredited laboratories in the states of Illinois and Iowa, and has provided the community with quality laboratory services for 100 years. Visit www.metromedlab.com. Tell your doctor, “I want to go to Metro.”
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