Whether you’re in your twenties or your sixties, you can reduce your chances of having a stroke or developing heart disease by learning about “bad” and “good” cholesterol. This knowledge isn’t just for “old people;” strokes and heart disease happen to people of all ages.
In Tennessee from 2007 to 2011, some 16,241 people died from stroke; of these, 1,307 or eight percent were under the age of 55. Similarly, from 2007 to 2011 there were 71,625 Tennesseans who died from heart disease; of these, 8,226 or 11.5 percent were under the age of 55. Many of these deaths may have been prevented with more aggressive efforts to maintain the balance between "good" and "bad" cholesterol.
“We all have two types of cholesterol in our bodies,” said TDH Commissioner John J. Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Some comes from animal products we eat and some is produced by our liver and other cells. Too much or not enough of one type or the other can put you at a greater risk for fatal or crippling conditions. If we understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol and get regular checkups to monitor levels, we have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.”
The two different types of cholesterol travel through our veins and arteries on carriers similar to trucks delivering supplies on roads and highways. These carriers are called low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, or high-density lipoproteins or HDL. The LDL carriers can build up on artery walls helping to form plaque. This narrows the arteries and makes them less flexible. The phrase “hardening of the arteries” is the familiar term for this condition; atherosclerosis is the medical term. It’s when bleeding occurs or a tiny blood clot forms in one these narrowed arteries that a heart attack or stroke can happen.
About one-quarter of blood cholesterol is moved by the “good” carrier, HDL. High levels of HDL can help protect against heart disease, while low levels can have the reverse effect. HDL helps carry cholesterol away from the arteries and to the liver, where it is shipped out of the body as waste material and doesn’t stay to form plaque. HDL may also earn its “good” status by actually removing extra cholesterol from the plaque in arteries.
Eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fats can increase the “bad” LDL levels in your blood. Some people also inherit genes from their parents or grandparents that cause them to have high or low LDL levels. Conversely, some people inherit genes that allow their bodies to produce just the right amount of LDL and HDL levels to be healthy for years, but not always.
“Our bodies change as we age, and how we manufacture or use cholesterol can change too,” Dreyzehner said. “That’s why it’s important to have regular screenings to see how the cholesterol carriers in your bloodstream are behaving. After seeing the results of your tests, your doctor can recommend a strategy personalized to you, including exercises to help you improve the balance between good and bad cholesterol.”
“The Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability has long recognized the importance of cholesterol screenings,” says TCAD Executive Director Jim Shulman. “The testing is simple and allows people to take the right steps to live better and longer lives. For some folks, modifying what they eat or how much they exercise is sufficient; for others, medications can be the answer. You won’t know what you need, though, until you have a cholesterol screening and talk with your doctor.”
For more information about cholesterol and how it affects your heart, visit www.heart.org and learn more from the American Heart Association.