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It’s Cholesterol Education Month – do you know what your test results mean?

In the nearly two centuries since a scientist identified cholesterol in human blood, doctors have been sharpening our understanding of cholesterol. This detailed understanding also means many of us need help deciphering the details of test results. Dr. Eugene Tanquilut and Vascular Specialists are here to help answer your questions about cholesterol.

First, our livers produce all the cholesterol our bodies need to form things like cell membranes and hormones. The cholesterol that enters our bodies through our food choices can build up into plaque deposits, hampering blood flow and contributing to atherosclerosis. 

There are two types of cholesterol. There is the so-called “good” cholesterol (High Density Lipoproteins or HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (Low Density Lipoproteins). High-density lipoproteins, the good stuff, gather together with other lipids and return to the liver where they are broken down and eliminated. In this way, HDL cholesterol actually helps clear arteries. Low-density proteins, the “bad” stuff, tend to build up in our arteries, which can contribute to plaque development, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

“A lipid profile is a simple blood test that can distinguish between “good” HDL cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol. The test tells us how much cholesterol a patient has in their blood, what kind of work that cholesterol is doing, and what lifestyle or medical adjustments we need to make to improve our vascular health,” says Dr. Tanquilut. This lipid profile can also indicate if a patient has an increased risk for or the presence of blockages.

By distinguishing between the helpful HDL and the less helpful LDL measurements, Vascular Specialists can create a more precise assessment of your vascular health. Research tells us HDL scores over 60 mg/dL are best for both men and women. Women are considered at risk if their HDL number falls below 50 mg/dL, while men aren’t considered to have poor HDL numbers until they measure below 40 mg/dL.

The healthiest levels of LDL cholesterol are a little trickier to identify. That number should be as low as possible–ideally below 70 mg/dL. However, scores below 100 mg/dL are perhaps more realistic, especially for patients already at risk for or diagnosed with heart disease.

“What counts as a high LDL number depends on your risk factors for heart disease,” says Dr. Tanquilut. “If you have a diagnosed arterial disease, anything above 130 mg/dL is concerning. In contrast, an otherwise healthy adult isn’t considered to have even borderline high cholesterol until they measure at 160 mg/dL.”

Given the range and specificity of cholesterol test results, the whole process can seem overwhelming. Having the test performed every year or two as advised helps you and Vascular Specialists track changes in your cholesterol levels–for better or worse. For some people, cholesterol levels will always be a challenge to control, due to their family history and genetic factors.

There are a range of medications available for people who have high cholesterol levels and increased risks for a heart attack or stroke. Some drugs work by blocking the liver’s production of cholesterol while other drugs slow the body’s rate of absorbing cholesterol in the digestive tract.

The easiest ways to improve your cholesterol levels are to decrease the amount of cholesterol in your diet and increase heart-healthy habits like exercising. Use olive or vegetable oil instead of butter. Avoid red meats including beef and pork, processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, deli meats and sausage. Cut out fried foods. Avoid baked good like cookies, cakes and donuts, and treats high in sugar.

Enjoy more eggs, especially egg whites. Dive into fish and seafood like salmon, cod, tuna and shrimp. Increase the amount of chicken and turkey in your menu. Dr. Tanquilut recommends walking at least 20 minutes each day, even if it’s just around your neighborhood.

Lowering your LDL and raising your HDL cholesterol will help you lower your risk of vascular disease and stroke. If you have questions about your cholesterol test results, reply to this email or click here. We are always happy to help.

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