Cholesterol is the waxy substance found in some fats. The liver produces most of the cholesterol needed by the body. We also get it from some of our foods (mainly those derived from animal fats). Cholesterol is used for some body functions and the formation of cell membranes.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood in the form of lipoproteins. Two important types are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein. LDL is the main carrier of cholesterol. Excess LDL cholesterol is deposited onto the walls of the arteries. Over time, it combines with other substances to form a hardened substance, called plaque. Like a drain with a clogged pipe, blood flow through the affected area is slowed or stopped. Areas of the body fed by that artery are deprived of oxygen and die. In the heart, a blocked artery leads to a heart attack. In the brain, it causes a stroke.
HDL cholesterol is sometimes referred to as the “good” cholesterol. That’s because it picks up excess deposits of cholesterol and carries them back to the liver for processing.
Women, Cholesterol, and Stroke
Stroke is the third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer) and a leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S. In the July issue of the journal, Stroke, researchers published stroke mortality results from the Women’s Pooling Project. Data from nine long-term studies (more then 24,000 women), was combined to determine the potential relationship between cholesterol levels and stroke. Investigators found risk for nonhemorrhagic stroke (caused by a blockage or clot) was significantly higher for women under 55 with high cholesterol. The findings were particularly strong for African American women.
Many young women don’t think of themselves as being at risk for stroke. However, doctors say all patients should know their cholesterol levels and take aggressive action if they are high – particularly patients with a family history of high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease. Last year, the National Cholesterol Education Panel recommended all Americans 20 and older have a fasting blood cholesterol test every five years. Desirable total cholesterol levels should be less than 200 mg/dL. Optimal LDL levels should be less than 100 mg/dL. Generally, the higher the HDL cholesterol, the better. HDL levels should be at least 40 mg/dL, while levels of 60 mg/dL are considered to be protective against cardiovascular disease. Recently, the American Heart Association expanded those guidelines, recommending a cardiovascular risk profile beginning at 20. For otherwise healthy people, measurements of blood pressure, body mass, waist circumference, and pulse should be taken every two years. Cholesterol and glucose tests should be given every five years.
There are several steps that can be taken to lower cholesterol levels. Some people are able to successfully reduce and control cholesterol through diet and lifestyle modifications. Others need a combination of diet, lifestyle change, and medications.
American Heart Association, contact your local chapter, or visit their website at http://www.americanheart.org
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov