"Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in a person's liver and other cells," explained Internal Medicine physician G. Scott Wilson, M.D. "It is also found in certain foods, such dairy products, eggs, and meat.
"The body needs some cholesterol in order to function properly. Its cell walls, or membranes, need cholesterol in order to produce hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat.
"A person's body produces more than enough cholesterol on its own to stay healthy. However, most Americans eat far too much cholesterol and fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol can lead to heart disease."
"Cholesterol can't travel through the blood on its own and is transported by special proteins, called lipoproteins," Dr. Wilson added.
-Low density lipoproteins (LDL): Also called "bad" cholesterol, LDL can cause a build-up of plaque on the walls of arteries. The more LDL there is in the blood, the greater the risk of heart disease.
-High density lipoproteins (HDL): Also called "good" cholesterol, HDL helps the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood.
"Excess LDL cholesterol in the blood gets deposited in the arteries, which are the blood vessels that feed the heart and brain," Dr. Wilson added. "These deposits can thicken and harden in the blood vessels and form plaque. The build-up of plaque is referred to as atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Plaque can narrow the passageway inside the artery and pinch off the flow of blood to the heart muscle.
"When not enough oxygen-carrying blood reaches the heart, a person may experience chest pain," Dr. Wilson continued. "If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by the blockage of a coronary artery, the result is a heart attack."
What Factors Affect Cholesterol Levels?
A variety of factors can affect cholesterol levels, including:
-Diet: Saturated fat and cholesterol in food can increase cholesterol levels.
-Weight: Being overweight can also increase cholesterol levels.
-Exercise: Regular exercise can lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
-Age and Gender. "As we get older, cholesterol levels rise," Dr. Wilson said. "Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, however, women's LDL levels tend to rise."
-Diabetes: Poorly controlled diabetes increases cholesterol levels.
-Heredity: High blood cholesterol can run in families.
-Other causes. Certain medications and medical conditions can cause high cholesterol.
How Much Cholesterol Is Too Much?
"People over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years," Dr. Wilson recommended. "When being tested, your doctor may recommend a non-fasting cholesterol test or a fasting cholesterol test. A non-fasting cholesterol test will show your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. A fasting cholesterol test, called a lipid profile or a lipoprotein analysis, will measure your LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol. It will also measure triglycerides."
Total Cholesterol Category
Less than 200 Desirable
200 - 239 Borderline High
240 and above High
HDL Cholesterol Category
60 mg/dL or higher Desirable
40-60 mg/dL Acceptable
Less than 40 mg/dl Undesirable
LDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 100 mg/dL Optimal
100-129 mg/dL Near Optimal
130-159 mg/dL Borderline High
160 and over mg/dL High
(Source: National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health)
Tips for Lowering Cholesterol
and Risk of Heart Disease
-Eat low-cholesterol foods. The American Heart Association recommends limiting average daily cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams. If you have heart disease, limit your daily intake to less than 200 milligrams.
-Quit smoking. Smoking lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol levels.
-Exercise. Exercise increases HDL cholesterol in some people. Even moderate-intensity activities, if done daily, can help control weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
-Take medication as prescribed by your doctor. Sometimes diet and lifestyle changes are not enough to bring cholesterol levels down and cholesterol-lowering medications are needed.
G. Scott Wilson, D.O., is a board certified internal medicine physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's Medical Staff. Appointments with Dr. Wilson may be scheduled by calling his office at 356 East Lincoln Way in Lisbon, at 330-420-0200.