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September 12, 2006 > Cholesterol Education Month: Know Your Numbers

Cholesterol Education Month: Know Your Numbers

Cholesterol Plays an Important Role in Heart Disease, Stroke

Cholesterol isn’t just a number. It can be a predictor of your overall cardiac health. In and of itself, cholesterol is merely a substance manufactured by the liver and other organs – and also consumed when you eat foods containing animal fat – that is present in all parts of the body. But when looked at in relation to your heart, elevated cholesterol levels play a significant role.

September, recognized as National Cholesterol Education Month by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), is a good time to take a closer look at your cholesterol levels, which play a major role in your risk for heart disease and stroke. The theme for this year’s observance is: “Know your cholesterol numbers—Know your risk—Give yourself some TLC.” Dr. Steven Curran, medical director of Washington Clinic/Newark and Washington Clinic/Warm Springs, offers a closer examination of cholesterol and its effects on the body. “The majority of cholesterol in our bloodstream is actually made by the liver, but the types of ‘raw material’ we give the liver, for example, fat and cholesterol in foods, can greatly influence blood levels of cholesterol,” Dr. Curran says.

Many times, we see cholesterol presented as a single number. According to the American Heart Association, a desirable cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL; borderline high risk is between 200 and 239 mg/dL; and high risk is 240 mg/dL and above. But using this number alone to assess health risks is overly simplistic, according to Dr. Curran.

Cholesterol is actually made up of three different components – HDL, or high density lipoprotein, LDL, or low density lipoprotein, and triglycerides.

“The individual components of cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides, are much better indicators of disease risk than total cholesterol,” says Dr. Curran. “For example, your total cholesterol may be normal but when you have high LDL and low HDL components, your cardiac risk may still be high; or conversely, high total cholesterol may not be a problem in someone with a high HDL ‘good’ cholesterol level.”

Because the high density lipoproteins are responsible for moving cholesterol from the tissues of the body to the liver where it can be disposed of in the body’s bile, HDL cholesterol is often referred to as the “good” cholesterol. Likewise, low density lipoprotein is responsible for transportation of cholesterol from the liver to different body tissues, and is therefore considered the “bad” cholesterol.

So who has to worry about their cholesterol levels? Everyone, according to Dr. Curran, because high cholesterol increases your risk for both heart disease and stroke, which kill more people than all other diseases combined.

“High cholesterol levels show up in the young, old and in-between,” he explains. “Cholesterol, like hypertension, is a ‘silent-killer,’ usually affecting those who have no symptoms, no idea that they have a problem.”

Finding out what your cholesterol levels are is as simple as a routine blood test offered at both Washington Clinic/Newark and Washington Clinic/Warm Springs, as well as Nakamura Clinic, Union City, all part of the Washington Hospital Healthcare System.

If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, Dr. Curran recommends following up with your physician to assess your overall risk, including blood pressure, blood sugar, whether you smoke, as well as your family history. He also suggests starting on a good diet and exercise plan, under the supervision of a health care professional.

Like everything else, with cholesterol there are some things you can control and others you can’t. Both heredity and diet and exercise play major roles in your risk for high cholesterol. Diet and exercise you can take steps to change; heredity is as simple as what your genetic code contains.

“In many people, diet and exercise can have a huge impact in lowering their bad cholesterol and raising the good; unfortunately, sometimes even the best lifestyle changes may have limited impact if the genetic influence is too strong,” Dr. Curran says. “Healthy lifestyle changes will help the heart and the rest of the body in other ways even if they are not enough to fix the cholesterol problem.”

If heredity does play a major role in elevated cholesterol levels and diet and exercise have not lowered your levels enough, certain types of prescribed medications may be able to help, Dr. Curran notes.

“There are medications available to help lower cholesterol,” he says. “But medication should be looked at as a long term project and not a quick fix. The decision to start medication usually comes after weighing all the risks and benefits and looking carefully at the overall cardiac risk profile – that is, does the patient also have hypertension or diabetes?”

In the end, what does Dr. Curran try to drive home with his own patients when it comes to cholesterol?

“The good news is cholesterol can be treated,” he says. “When identified early and healthy changes are made, a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke can be drastically reduced.” To make an appointment with a physician at Washington Clinic/Newark, call (510) 797-7535. To make an appointment at Washington Clinic/Warm Springs, call (510) 651-2371 or (408) 946-6443. To make an appointment at Nakamura Clinic, Union City, call (510) 487-6000. To learn more about Washington Hospital Clinics, visit, click on “Our Facilities” and select “Washington Hospital Clinics” from the drop-down menu. For more information about other programs and services, visit the Web site and click on “Services & Programs.

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