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Heart Health

Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Disease: The Good, the Bad, and the Modifiable Risk Factors

Do you know your cholesterol level? If you answered no, you're not alone. But it might be time to talk to your doctor and get your levels checked. An estimated 73.5 million adults in the United States have high cholesterol, which substantially raises their risk for heart disease -- the number one cause of death in the country. Despite this link between high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, many people don't know what their levels are or how they can lower them. Less than half of people with high cholesterol get the recommended treatment to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Assessing Your Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Cholesterol is just one piece of the cardiovascular risk puzzle -- but it's an important piece. You may have heard about the two types of cholesterol. HDL (high density lipoprotein) is the good kind -- you want more of this one. This type scavenges your blood for fat and carries it to the liver to get broken down and sent out of the body. The bad cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoprotein), deposits fats in the arteries, leading to a buildup of plaque that blocks blood from flowing properly. The higher your LDL level, the higher your risk of heart attack or stroke, especially when combined with other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Several factors raise your risk for high LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Some of them -- such as age, gender and family history -- are beyond your control. But there are risk factors that you can do something about, such as diet, physical activity, weight, and smoking. These are called modifiable risk factors and, combined with cholesterol-lowering medication when appropriate, they're your best chance at lowering your risk of heart disease.

Doctors now use a risk assessment formula that takes all this into account to assess your 10-year risk of heart disease and make recommendations for lifestyle changes, medication, or a combination to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

Steps to Reduce Your Risk

It's never too early to start reducing your risk for heart disease.

1. Make lifestyle changes. You've heard it all before, but it's worth repeating: What you eat and what you do each day affects your heart health. No matter what your risk level or your cholesterol level, you can benefit from the following changes:

  • Trim meat from your diet and choose low-fat dairy products to lower your intake of saturated fat. Boost your intake of heart healthy foods, like oatmeal, berries, and beans.
  • Exercise 30-40 minutes at least three days a week.
  • Reduce your weight (which often happens when you cut out saturated fat and start exercising more).
  • Stop smoking -- and certainly don't start!

2. Get treatment for related medical conditions. High blood pressure, diabetes, and other medical conditions raise the risk for heart disease. Make sure you keep these conditions under good control. (Diet and exercise help with this too!)

3. Ask your doctor about cholesterol-lowering medication. If lifestyle changes aren't enough to reduce your risk, talk to your doctor about medications that lower cholesterol levels.

Now that you know more about cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, you can start taking the right steps to improving your heart health.

Posted in Heart Health

Emily Paulsen is a veteran health care writer with more than 20 years of experience. She is specifically interested in patient education, health information technology, health disparities, complementary medicine, and improving the health care experience for patients and professionals alike. Emily lives near Washington, D.C., and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is a board member of ASJA and co-chair of the D.C.-area chapter.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.