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September 24, 2008 > Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack?

Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack?

National Cholesterol Education Month Focuses on Prevention

Is your heart a ticking time bomb? The answer may be found in your blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.

September is National Cholesterol Education Month, a good time to get your blood cholesterol checked and take steps to lower it if it is high. It is also a good time to learn about eating and lifestyle choices that can help you improve your cholesterol levels and lower your risk for heart disease.

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women," said Dr. Shelli Bodnar, a family physician with the Washington Township Medical Group. "It is important to get your blood cholesterol levels checked because there are no signs or symptoms associated with high cholesterol."

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the blood. It is transported to and from the cells by carriers called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, is knows as bad cholesterol.

When too much LDL is in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries. Together with other substances, it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can narrow the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. When an artery becomes too narrow - or if a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery - it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

About a third of blood cholesterol is carried to and from the cells by high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. Known as "good" cholesterol, HDL seems to protect against heart disease. Medical experts think HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is passed from the body.

"That's why knowing your combined cholesterol level doesn't really tell the whole story," Bodnar said. "You need to know what your HDL and your LDL levels are to really understand your risk."


Reducing Your Risk

To accurately measure your cholesterol levels, you need to take a blood test called a lipoprotein profile. The test is usually done after fasting for 12 hours. Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood.

For most people, LDL should be below 130 mg/dL. Anything over 160 mg/dL is considered high. HDL should be kept above 40 mg/dL.

However, targets for both HDL and LDL depend on other risk factors. In general, the higher your LDL level and the more risk factors you have (other than LDL), the greater your chances of developing heart disease or having a heart attack.

"If a patient is age 25 and has high cholesterol, I'm less concerned than someone with other risk factors such as diabetes or high blood pressure," Bodnar said.

Age, gender and heredity all affect your chances of having high cholesterol. While you can't change these factors, there are others you can control, including:

Eat a heart-healthy diet. While some cholesterol is made by your body, the food you eat is responsible for the rest. Eat a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and poultry.

Get moving. Physical activity can increase the level of good cholesterol and help control other risk factors for heart disease like obesity and high blood pressure. You should get 30 minutes or more of physical activity at least four days a week.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease and also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and raise your HDL.

Don't smoke. If you smoke, quit. Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States and a serous risk factor for heart disease. Smoking has been shown to lower good cholesterol and also decreases your ability to stay physically active.

"These lifestyle changes can bring down cholesterol levels by as much as 20 percent," Bodnar said. "If your cholesterol is too high, that may not be enough and you may need to take medication to lower it. But the first step to reducing your risk for heart disease is getting your cholesterol checked."

To learn more about blood cholesterol and heart disease, visit www.americanheart.org.

For information about Washington Hospital programs and services, visit www.whhs.com.

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