Tomorrow, September 1, marks the start of National Cholesterol Education Month. In support of this educational effort, Health Net, Inc., (NYSE: HNT) is encouraging those who haven't yet done so, to have their blood cholesterol measured and, if it's high, to embark on a cholesterol-lowering program.
"According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, more than 65-million Americans have high blood cholesterol and are thus at increased risk for developing heart disease and potentially suffering a heart attack," explains Jonathan Scheff, M.D., chief medical officer for Health Net, Inc. "Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States," he adds. "In fact, more than one million Americans have heart attacks annually and about half a million die from heart disease. Clearly, controlling cholesterol is a critical health issue."
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in cell walls throughout the body. The function of cholesterol is to produce hormones, bile acids, vitamin D, and other substances. Cholesterol is transported via lipoproteins, of which there are two primary types:
- Low density lipoprotein, or LDL, is often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to tissues, including the arteries. The higher the level of LDL, the greater the risk for heart disease.
- High density lipoprotein, or HDL, is frequently dubbed the "good" cholesterol because it delivers cholesterol to the liver, thus removing it from the body. A low level of HDL raises heart-disease risk.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) points out that cholesterol poses a danger when it reaches excess levels and becomes trapped in artery walls. Trapped cholesterol can build up and become plaque, which in turn can lead to atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries." If the heart's coronary arteries become blocked by plaque, angina — chest pain — can result. When atherosclerosis affects the coronary arteries, the condition is called coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease.
Plaque poses an additional threat in that some plaques have a thin covering that can burst, releasing cholesterol and fat into the bloodstream. A blood clot can consequently form, blocking arterial blood flow and causing a heart attack.
Know your numbers
"High blood cholesterol itself," notes Scheff, "isn't accompanied by symptoms, so many people are unaware they are at risk. That's why getting tested is extremely important."
Scheff says a total cholesterol level of less than 200 is desirable. Between 200 and 239 is considered borderline high, while 240 and above is deemed high. In relation to LDL (bad) cholesterol, a level of less than 100 is optimal; 100 to 129 is near optimal; 130 to 159 is designated borderline high; 160 to 189 is considered high; and 190 or above is very high. As for HDL (good) cholesterol, higher numbers are actually better. For example, an HDL level of less than 40 is considered a significant risk factor for men and less than 50 is a significant risk for women. HDL levels of 60 or more help lower the risk of heart disease.
Four steps to curb cholesterol
For those with a total blood cholesterol that is borderline or high, Scheff suggests taking the following four steps along with seeking the advice of a health-care provider:
1. Reduce fat in your daily diet — Eat less fatty cuts of red meats, fewer foods prepared with animal fats and oils, avoid “added” fats such as butter, margarine, salad dressings, mayonnaise, as well as sauces, and stay away from fried foods.
2. Opt for unsaturated fats —Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol level; they're found in animal products such as bacon, cold cuts, frankfurters, and even cheese and whole milk, as well as a few plant products, including coconut and palm oil. Unsaturated fats come in two forms: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Safflower oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, corn oil, and fish are good sources of polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil.
3. Consume more carbohydrates and fiber — Choose foods high in complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber). Complex carbohydrates contain little or no saturated fat and no cholesterol. They include whole grain breads and cereals, oats, barley, brown rice, dry beans, fruits, and vegetables.
4. Exercise regularly — Aim for 20 minutes of aerobic activity at least three times a week. Aerobic exercise is a great way to increase HDL or “good" cholesterol.