Believe it or not, your body actually needs cholesterol to function properly. But too much can build up in your blood vessels and block the flow of blood to vital organs. The result? A heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance made by your liver from saturate fat. Some cholesterol also comes from animal protein: meat, eggs and dairy products.
In the body, cholesterol takes two forms: HDL, what we call good cholesterol; and LDL, or bad cholesterol. The combination of these two types makes up your body's total cholesterol. Your measurement will fall into one of these three categories:
So what's a desirable cholesterol level? Total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL means your heart attack risk is relatively low, unless you have other risk factors. Nearly half the adult population is in this group.
It is important to pay particular attention to lowering the LDL. This level shoul at least be under 130 mg/dL - especially in patients who have heart disease.
Having your cholesterol measured is easy -- it's just a blood test. And you should have it done at least every five years if it has been relatively stable in the desirable range; more often if you're a man over 45 or a woman over 55.
Borderline High Risk
If your cholesterol level is between 200 and 239 mg/dL, you're considered borderline high risk, along with roughly one-third of American adults. Have your cholesterol checked every one or two years -- or more frequently if your doctor suggests it.
With a total cholesterol level of 240 or higher, your risk of heart attack and stroke is double that of those in the desirable group. Your doctor will suggest ways to reduce your levels and will want to check your cholesterol more frequently.
Smoking accelerates coronary plaque development that can block blood flow to your heart. Nicotine and carbon monoxide, the two main poisons found in cigarette smoke, also rob your heart of the oxygen it needs to function properly.
Even if you eat healthy, don't smoke and get plenty of exercise, you may still be at risk. Your family history may indicate a genetic predisposition for heart disease, high cholesterol or triglyceride levels, high blood pressure or other heart problems.
If your family has a history of heart disease or any serious condition, you owe it to yourself to be informed and continue to monitor your health through regular doctor visits. Especially if you smoke, don't get enough physical activity or have other risk factors for heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder than normal, and can increase your risk of heart attack, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), or other serious health problems. Factors that affect high blood pressure include diet and lifestyle, family history, race (African Americans are at greater risk than others), aging and gender (men are more likely than women to have high blood pressure until age 55; women are at higher risk after age 75).
Normal adult blood pressure is 120/80. The top number, called systolic pressure, measures the force as your arteries expand. The bottom number, called diastolic pressure, measures the pressure as arteries relax.
Hypertension is anything from 121-139 systolic and 81-89 diastolic. High blood pressure is anything over 140 systolic or 90 diastolic.
Known as hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque on artery walls. This slow, complex disease starts in childhood and often progresses as we age when deposits of plaque begin to restrict the flow of blood, sometimes leading to heart attack or stroke.
Plaque buildup is most often caused by elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (fatty acids) in the blood, smoking and high blood pressure.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important to keep your heart functioning properly. Studies show carrying extra weight increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Further, poor diet contributes to higher cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
For men, a waist of more than 40 inches is considered high risk. For women, more than 35 inches. Your Body Mass Index (BMI) -- a measure of body fat relative to your height -- can indicate your risk as well. Calculate your BMI.
According to recent research, one glass of wine or beer per day can improve arterial elasticity along with other health benefits. But drinking more than that can erode those benefits and even lead to a host of other unhealthy side effects, including high blood pressure, stroke and liver damage.
Stress and its link with heart disease are still under scrutiny. However, researchers have determined that stress does cause certain changes in both behavior and body function.
We do know that stress can cause blood pressure to rise. When you're under stress, you also may be more likely to eat, drink to excess or smoke. Those who feel pressured for time may exercise less. Also a body under stress produces unhealthy levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
Some common stress-inducing situations include:
Begin the risk assessment.
Now that you’ve learned more about the risk factors of cardiovascular disease – and taken the risk assessment, it’s important to discuss your individual findings with a physician. If you don't have a physician, visit our free physician finder. Upon consultation, you may need to have further testing ordered by the physician. Additionally, he or she can discuss ways to reduce your health risks by developing a plan that includes:
Plain and simple, limiting your daily intake of saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol and calories can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Specifically, try to balance your diet with lean, protein-rich foods including soy, fish, skinless chicken, very lean meat, and fat-free or 1% dairy products.
Eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, along with foods high in soluble fiber (oats, bran, dry peas, beans, cereal and rice). Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, including fish, wild salmon, tuna, fish oils and certain nuts, also can help reduce your cholesterol and help maintain a healthy heart.
Studies continue to prove that being active for as little as 30 minutes a day can improve your overall health. Regular exercise lowers your cholesterol, improves blood flow and oxygen levels, and can help you lose weight.
Certain medications, when combined with diet and exercise, can help lower your cholesterol levels, improve circulation and strengthen your heart. Talk with your doctor to see what's right for you
If you're at risk for heart problems or have a family history of heart disease, talk to your doctor to learn how to reduce your risk. Early detection is one of your best defenses.
Anyone over 20 should have their cholesterol checked once every five years. Men over 35 and women should have their cholesterol monitored more frequently, especially if your levels are in the higher ranges.
If you smoke, quitting now will greatly reduce your health risks, including your risk of heart attack, coronary heart disease, hardening of the arteries, stroke, chronic lung disease and cancer. Quitting isn't easy, but its importance can't be minimized.
Limiting Alcohol Consumption
Excess alcohol consumption has been linked to a number of health disorders, including high blood pressure, higher levels of trigylcerides, heart failure and more. For optimum health, women should consume no more than one drink per day; men should limit their intake to no more than two drinks per day.
Managing stress can help reduce your risk of serious heart problems by lowering your blood pressure, along with unhealthy amounts of stress hormones in your bloodstream.
Along with dietary and lifestyle modifications, you also can reduce your stress by practicing various relaxation techniques.
Reducing saturated fats like those found in fried foods, ice cream, butter and baked goods, along with limiting your intake of high-cholesterol foods including egg yolks, certain meats and shellfish, will help keep your cholesterol low.
Other ways to control cholesterol include medication, exercise and quitting smoking.
High blood pressure can usually be controlled by making lifestyle changes -- losing weight if you're overweight, quitting smoking, and limiting your intake of fat, sodium, caffeine and alcohol.
If lifestyle modification alone doesn't control your blood pressure, you may re
quire medication. Ask your doctor if this is right for you.
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