We all know high cholesterol is unhealthy, but most of the time there are no symptoms to tip us off. National Cholesterol Education Month aims to educate the public on how to avoid high cholesterol.
September is National Cholesterol Education Month, reminding all of us—including seniors and caregivers—that it’s important to check our cholesterol each year, and take steps to lower it if it’s too high. One of the biggest issues with high cholesterol is that there may be no symptoms, and nothing to clue us in to the fact that we may be putting our bodies at risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. What you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. And more than 102 million American adults have cholesterol levels above the healthy range, reports the CDC.
That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, and many other organizations are putting the word out about National Cholesterol Education Month. Read on for the basic facts you need to know to keep your family heart healthy.
Must-Know Facts About Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance, made by the liver and found in some foods, that circulates in the bloodstream and is vital to the body’s healthy functioning. However, too much cholesterol in the blood can be dangerous to heart and vascular health. More cholesterol basics everyone should remember:
- There are two kinds of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is also called “good” cholesterol, and it actually helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries, as well as helping protect against heart attack and stroke. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, is the main source of high cholesterol levels.
- Cholesterol has two sources. The body produces about 75% of blood cholesterol, and the other 25% comes from food sources—primarily animal products. The cholesterol produced by the liver is enough to support bodily processes like digestion and making hormones. However, some people inherit genes that cause their bodies to make too much cholesterol.
- High blood cholesterol has no symptoms. People don’t generally experience any symptoms from high cholesterol in and of itself, therefore many people don’t even know their cholesterol is too high.
- High cholesterol can be detected with a simple blood test. Screening to measure blood cholesterol should generally take place every 5 years for adults over 20, says the National Cholesterol Education Program. Those at higher risk—including men over 45 and women over 50—may need to get tested more often.
The Dangers of High Cholesterol in Seniors
When seniors—or any of us—gets a blood test for cholesterol, the laboratory measures levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. The total number for HDL and LDL should, optimally, be below 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). Anything above that could indicate high cholesterol. At the same time, the specific numbers are important: having HDL below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women can increase the risk of heart disease (American Heart Association).
For seniors, it’s particularly important to get screened for high cholesterol. Cholesterol levels rise as we age, says NIH Senior Health, and in particular, women’s LDL levels tend to increase after menopause. Older age isn’t the only risk factor, either. Cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, or a family history of early heart disease can also affect LDL levels. For seniors with high cholesterol, it’s critically important to work with a physician to determine a goal for lower LDL and healthy lifestyle habits.
Health Benefits of Lowering Cholesterol
Lowering cholesterol has a huge effect on cardiovascular health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high levels of LDL combined with other risk factors like the ones discussed above can increase the likelihood of heart disease or heart attack. At the same time, appropriately high levels of good cholesterol can help protect against heart attack, stroke, and even dementia.
Lowering cholesterol may require a number of therapeutic lifestyle changes: regular physical activity, weight management, not smoking (or quitting smoking), and a heart-healthy diet. In some cases, a physician may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug like a statin or a cholesterol absorption inhibitor. With or without drug treatment, though, a healthy lifestyle and regular screenings are key to maintaining desirable cholesterol levels—and living well into one’s golden years.
Take the opportunity during the month of September to get educated about your cholesterol and get at-risk family members tested. And, if you or your family has been affected by high cholesterol, we invite you to share your experiences in the comments.