Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is present in cells and tissues throughout the body. In excess, it has received the deservedly bad reputation of being capable of blocking blood vessels. Indeed, having too much cholesterol does place you at higher risk for the development of heart attack and stroke. Misconceptions about cholesterol, however, may be keeping some people from having their high cholesterol recognized or from receiving appropriate treatment.
- There is nothing beneficial about cholesterol—On the contrary, cholesterol contributes to a number of essential bodily functions. It is the parent compound of several hormones including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. It is also important in immune system function and brain development. High-density lipoprotein, also known as “good” cholesterol, travels throughout the bloodstream, keeping “bad” cholesterol (LDL) from attaching to and potentially blocking blood vessels.
- Cholesterol-containing foods are the major source of cholesterol in the blood stream. — Most of the cholesterol that circulates in the blood stream does not come from cholesterol in foods but is produced in the liver in response to eating saturated and trans fat. In American diets, the majority of saturated fat comes from animal products such as beef, pork, butter, cream, cheese and other full-fat dairy products. Trans fats are found in many fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, pizza dough, pie crust, cookies and crackers.
- Taking a cholesterol-lowering medication means you don’t have to watch fat in the diet—The first steps toward achieving a lower cholesterol level involves TLC. This stands for Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes and includes weight management, getting regular physical activity, and following a cholesterol-lowering diet. If these measures fail to bring the cholesterol level into the desired range, consideration is given to the use of cholesterol-lowering medications. Even when taking medication, however, TLC measures will need to be continued for the best treatment outcome.
- High cholesterol is more of a problem in men than in women—-Prior to the onset of menopause, women do have some protection from high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL). This is due to the influence of estrogen that raises “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels. Postmenopausal women, however, may experience a gradual rise in their cholesterol levels each year. This is why it is important for women to have their cholesterol level checked around the time of menopause.
- High cholesterol is a problem that only affects older individuals— Adults are not the only age group affected by high cholesterol. There is an abundance of scientific evidence indicating that the atherosclerotic process (buildup of fatty plaque in arteries) starts in childhood and progresses slowly afterwards. This can lead to the development of blockages in major blood vessels in the body causing strokes or heart attacks to occur at a premature age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children who are overweight, have hypertension, or have a family history of heart disease should have their cholesterol tested as young as two years of age.
- High cholesterol can cause symptoms such as chest pain—When cholesterol plaques narrow or block blood vessels supplying the heart, chest pain (angina) or heart attack may occur. However, when blood cholesterol is high, but vessels have not yet been narrowed or blocked, no symptoms are produced. This asymptomatic nature of high cholesterol points out the importance of periodic blood screening, rather than waiting for symptoms to develop.
- Only obese people have to worry about high cholesterol—People of any body type can have high cholesterol. Overweight people may be more likely to have high cholesterol, because of dietary indiscretion and consumption of high fat foods. Elevated cholesterol levels can also develop in thin people who eat more fatty foods in an effort to gain weight. No one has the metabolic or digestive capability to “eat anything they want” without having to worry about the potential of having high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a fascinating substance, essential to normal body function, but harmful when the levels of the “bad” type (LDL) is too high or the “good” type (HDL) is too low. It is important to know these levels in yourself so that you and your doctor can determine the best strategy to keep them in their proper range.
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