Understanding good cholesterol versus bad. Balancing heredity with lifestyle. Cholesterol control can be difficult to grasp, starting with what cholesterol actually is.
Cholesterol is a necessary cellular building block, a waxy substance produced by the body and found in certain foods. While these fatty deposits are necessary for healthy cells, too much can build up in the blood vessels, limiting blood flow and causing heart disease.
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Lipoproteins are the carriers of cholesterol to and from cells. Its low-density form (LDL) is “bad” cholesterol because it causes potentially dangerous plaque accumulation. High-density (HDL) is “good” cholesterol because it works with the liver to absorb and flush potential deposits from the body, reducing the risk for heart disease and stroke.
Family history plays a part in determining cholesterol levels. Parents with high cholesterol tend to have children who do as well. Called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), the inherited condition is relatively common and a serious health concern — often leading to early, life-threatening cardiac problems.
“FH is vastly underdiagnosed, affecting one out of every 200 to 500 individuals in the U.S.,” said Gabe Kringlen, M.S., a certified genetic counselor formerly at Sanford Health. “Of those with FH, 90 percent don’t know they have it. However, it is not uncommon for someone with FH to have a heart attack before age 50.”
Getting cholesterol under control
A number of factors contributing to high cholesterol can be controlled, reducing the likelihood of the dangerous medical conditions brought on by high cholesterol:
- High blood pressure, for instance, increases pressure on artery walls and subsequent fatty deposit accumulation. So maintaining healthy blood pressure levels reduces pressure and risk.
- Cigarette smoking can damage blood vessel walls and allows fatty deposits to accumulate more quickly.
- Obesity increases bad cholesterol levels. Limit consumption of red meat, saturated fats, full-fat dairy products and other cholesterol-rich foods.
- Exercise also increases good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol.
Symptoms of high cholesterol may not become apparent until damage has been done. Monitoring of cholesterol through a blood test at least every five years in adults is key to maintaining healthy levels.
People with high cholesterol face challenges, but do have options. Healthy lifestyle choices can be supplemented with medications or other treatments.
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