High Cholesterol Risks: Top 2 Dangers
A lot of people don’t take the risks of high cholesterol very seriously. After all, one out of five people have high cholesterol. A staggering 50% of Americans have levels above the suggested limit. Could something so common really be a serious health risk?
Unfortunately, yes. Cholesterol is a direct contributor to cardiovascular disease, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
“Despite all of the amazing medicines and treatments we have, cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death and illness in our society,” says Laurence S. Sperling, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Ga.
The World Health Organization estimates that almost 20% of all strokes and over 50% of all heart attacks can be linked to high cholesterol.
But if you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, don’t despair. The good news is that high cholesterol is one risk factor for strokes and heart attacks that you can change. You just need to take action now, before your high cholesterol results in more serious disease.
All About High-Risk Cholesterol Numbers
When it comes to high cholesterol risks, it’s tough to keep the details straight. We might have a vague idea of whether our cholesterol is “good” or “bad,” but we forget the actual numbers by the time we get to the parking lot outside our doctor’s office. So it may be worth reviewing the basics.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance circulating in your blood. Some of your cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. But the bulk of it is actually made in your own body, specifically in the liver. Cholesterol does have some good uses. It is needed to make some hormones and it is important for the function of our cells. But an excess of it in the bloodstream can lead to trouble.
Cholesterol comes in several different forms, but doctors focus mostly on two: LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.
- LDL is also called “bad cholesterol” — Sperling suggests that you think of the “L” as standing for lousy. LDL cholesterol can clog your arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Most people should aim for a level of less than 100 mg/dL. However, people who already have heart disease may need to aim for under 70 mg/dL.
- HDL is “good cholesterol.” Imagine the “H” stands for healthy, Sperling suggests. This type of cholesterol attaches to bad cholesterol and brings it to the liver, where it’s filtered out of the body. So HDL cholesterol reduces the amount of bad cholesterol in your system. You should aim for 60 mg/dL or higher.
- Triglycerides are not cholesterol but another type of fat floating in your blood. Just as with bad cholesterol, having a high level of triglycerides increases your risk of cardiovascular problems. Aim for a level of less than 150 mg/dL.
So although we all talk about high cholesterol risks, the term is a little misleading. What we really mean is high levels of bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and alow level of good HDL cholesterol.
What about total cholesterol? While anything under 200 mg/dL is still considered the target, most experts don’t focus on the number. It doesn’t mean all that much. “Someone can have a total cholesterol of under 200 — which is lower than average for Americans — but still have unhealthy levels of HDL or LDL,” says Sperling.
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