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Cholesterol to Reduce Risk of Heart Attack, Stroke

Mary E. Krebs, MD, is a family medicine specialist at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown.

Q. What do I need to know about my cholesterol, my diet and cholesterol-reducing therapies?

A. September is National Cholesterol Education Month, a great time to learn more about improving your health by controlling your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a substance your body uses to make certain tissues and hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. You also consume cholesterol through certain foods. Too much cholesterol can cause health problems.

Four cholesterol numbers are important. The first is total cholesterol. While the total number is important, the breakdown is more important. LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, is the bad cholesterol. LDL can build up in the walls of your arteries. HDL, the high-density lipoprotein, is the good cholesterol. HDL protects you from heart disease by taking the bad cholesterol out of your blood. The fourth number measures triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood.

High LDL and triglyceride levels cause a buildup of fat and cholesterol in your blood vessels.

If this causes a clog in the arteries to your heart, you will experience a heart attack. If this happens in the arteries that lead to your brain, you might experience a stroke. One of the biggest goals of medicine is to keep people independent as they get older. Preventing strokes is one of the best ways to accomplish this.

What should your cholesterol be? That depends on several factors. The higher your risk, the lower you should keep your cholesterol. Your doctor will determine your risk of heart attack by reviewing age, your medical history, family history and lifestyle choices. You are at higher risk for heart attack and stroke if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or a history of heart attack or stroke; a family history of heart attack or stroke; smoke, do not exercise, or do not eat a healthy diet.

If your doctor has told you that your cholesterol is too high, there are many things that can lower it. The first is eating a healthy diet. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain fiber, which acts like a sponge to absorb cholesterol in the digestive tract. Avoid saturated fats, so decrease or avoid butter, margarine, lard and shortening. Substituting baked or grilled fish for meat will also help. Fish and fish oil contain omega-3 fatty acids, which lower cholesterol. As with any vitamin or supplement, always tell your doctor about anything you take, as it could interact with medications or cause other problems.

Cardiovascular exercise lowers LDL and raises HDL. This is best done for 30 minutes, four to five days a week. If you walk a lot, you can get a pedometer and aim for at least 10,000 steps a day. Any improvement you make will help.

Stop smoking. Tobacco lowers good cholesterol levels, in addition to causing many other health problems. 

If your cholesterol is very high or hasn't come down enough with a healthy diet and exercise, your doctor might recommend medication. There are several types of medications that can lower cholesterol. If medication is needed, your doctor will help you find one that lowers your cholesterol with minimal side effects.

To learn more about cholesterol and how it affects you, ask your doctor: What is my HDL and LDL? What should they be? What is my risk for heart attack and stroke? What can I do to lower my risk? The answers to these questions will allow you and your doctor to work together to keep you independent and enjoying life.

This information is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your physician for advice in all matters related to your health.

Content Updated: May 11, 2016

These Atrium Medical Center locations offer Cardiology Services.
Cardiology and Vascular Services at Atrium Medical Center
Outpatient Cardiac Testing and Rehabilitation at Atrium Health Center Mason
Outpatient Cardiac Testing and Rehabilitation at Atrium Health Center Trenton
Outpatient Cardiac Testing and Rehabilitation at Atrium Medical Center
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