February is National Heart Month and as a cardiologist I can tell you that it takes more than a month of fancy slogans or clever catchphrases to do the job. Taking care of your heart is an all-year-long event, so it helps to have a clear idea of what it takes to do that job.
In a way, it’s sort of like maintaining your house. Two very important systems in your house are the electricity and the plumbing. You can think of the medical science of the heart as also focusing in these two main areas.
As a doctor who specializes in the heart’s unique plumbing system, I pay a lot of attention to the cholesterol level in blood because the science has shown us that it has a lot to do with your chances of getting heart disease.
A high level of blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease, a condition that increases your chance of getting the disease. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for eventually developing heart disease or having a heart attack.
It’s a simple fact that too many of us have too much of this fatty substance in our blood stream. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood for too long, it builds up along the walls of the arteries. Over time, this buildup causes “hardening of the arteries” so that arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or blocked.
This is why patients suffer chest pain. The heart is basically “screaming out” for more oxygen to do its vital work. As the situation in the arteries continues to deteriorate, the blood supply to a portion of the heart is eventually completely cut off by a blockage. The result is a heart attack.
But high blood cholesterol itself does not cause symptoms, so many people are unaware that their cholesterol level is too high. It is important to find out what your cholesterol numbers are because lowering cholesterol levels that are too high lessens the risk for developing heart disease and reduces the chance of a heart attack or dying of heart disease, even if you already have it.
Cholesterol lowering is important for everyone — younger, middle age, and older adults; women and men; and people with or without heart disease. Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years.
It is best to have a blood test called a “lipoprotein profile” to find out your cholesterol numbers. This blood test is done after a 9- to 12-hour fast and gives information about your:
• Total cholesterol
• LDL (bad) cholesterol — the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries
• HDL (good) cholesterol — helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries
• Triglycerides — another form of fat in your blood
If it is not possible to get a lipoprotein profile done, knowing your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol can give you a general idea about your cholesterol levels. HDL (good) cholesterol protects against heart disease. When it concerns HDL, higher numbers are better.
Triglycerides can also raise heart disease risk. Levels that are borderline high or high may need treatment in some people.
There are a variety of things that can affect cholesterol levels. This is what you can do something about:
• Your diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat make your blood cholesterol level go up. Saturated fat is the main culprit, but cholesterol in foods also matters. Reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level.
• Weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL and lower your triglyceride levels.
• Physical activity. Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular physical activity can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also helps you lose weight. You should try to be physically active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days.
There are also a number of things you cannot do anything about that can also affect cholesterol levels. These include:
• Age and gender. As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels rise. Before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.
• Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
I will be discussing these issues with you in person on Feb. 26 at the hospital’s Lunch & Learn program in the One West Conference Room. I hope to see you there at noon.
Georges Damaa, M.D., is a cardiologist at the ARH Daniel Boone Clinic in Harlan.