[In the last installment of The Healthy Geezer, we focused upon triglycerides. This column is a companion piece about cholesterol.]
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in blood. You need it to produce cell membranes, protect nerves, and make hormones.
The body can make all the cholesterol it needs. Most cholesterol is made by your liver. You also get cholesterol from foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products. Too much cholesterol is dangerous, because cholesterol can lead to blockages in your blood vessels.
Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream in packages called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) remove cholesterol from the bloodstream. LDLs are often described as “bad” cholesterol; HDLs are called “good” cholesterol.
If there are too many LDLs in the blood, they will combine with other material in your bloodstream to manufacture plaque, a waxy crud that builds up on the inner walls of the blood vessels that feed your brain and heart. When this build-up occurs, you have a condition called “atherosclerosis,” which is commonly referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”
If a clot forms in blood vessels narrowed by plaque, it can block blood flow, which can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
The recommended levels of cholesterol are as follows:
Total cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dL. (“Mg/dL” stands for milligram per deciliter.) “Borderline high” is defined as between 200 and 239 mg/dL. You’re risking heart disease if your reading is 240 mg/dL or more.
LDL cholesterol level should be less than 130 mg/dL. “Borderline high” is between 130 and 159 mg/dL. There’s heart-disease risk if your reading is 160 mg/dL or more.
HDL cholesterol levels should be at 60 mg/dL or higher to cut the risk of heart disease. You’re at high risk for heart disease if you have a reading less than 40 mg/dL.
If your total cholesterol level is high because of high LDLs, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. If your total level is high only because of a high HDLs, you're probably not at higher risk.
Some physicians use the ratio of total cholesterol to HDLs. The ratio is obtained by dividing the HDLs into the total cholesterol. The goal is to keep the ratio below 5 to 1.
(Interesting fact: Male sex hormones lower HDL levels. Female sex hormones raise HDL levels. Draw your own conclusions.)
What can you do to control cholesterol?
Cholesterol is in all foods from animals, so reduce your intake of meat, eggs and dairy products. Cut back on fatty foods such as snacks, desserts and anything fried. Eat vegetables and fruit.
Regular physical activity increases HDL cholesterol in some people. Weight loss can help lower your bad cholesterol.
Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol levels and increases the tendency for blood to clot.
People who consume moderate amounts of alcohol (one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women) have a lower risk of heart disease than nondrinkers. However, alcohol can be unhealthy. For example, a small about of alcohol can make a big increase in triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a fat in your blood that should be kept in check. Whether you should drink a moderate amount of alcohol is definitely a question you should ask your personal physician.
Get your physician’s advice, too, about drugs to lower your cholesterol. If lifestyle changes don’t help you, you may need to take medicine to lower your cholesterol level.