If you ask young Americans to estimate their last cholesterol numbers, you will likely get a blank stare.
More than 1 in 5 people in their twenties have high cholesterol. That number doubles for thirtysomethings. By the time people hit their forties, 1 in 2 have high cholesterol. Paying attention early on to your diet and activity level can lower your cholesterol level and your risk of developing cardiovascular problems throughout your life.
This blog is the second in a series of three posts about chronic illness prevention in young adults.
Cholesterol is an important predictor of heart health but it is also critical for the body’s normal functioning. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that the body creates and uses to make hormones, Vitamin D, and helps to digest food. Cholesterol also comes from several animal-based food sources. Excess cholesterol can lead to buildup in your arteries.
How often should I check my cholesterol? The American Heart Association recommends checking your cholesterol every 4 to 6 years. In 2015, Vermont ranked 15th in the US for timely checking cholesterol levels. Like blood pressure, high cholesterol often produces no symptoms, but in 2009, only 63 percent of people nationwide ages 18-44 had their cholesterol checked within the previous five years.
What happens if I don’t watch my cholesterol? Over time high cholesterol (dyslipidemia) results in deposits in your arteries that can block blood flow—it’s a condition called atherosclerosis. With it the risk of stroke and heart attack increases. Testing cholesterol requires a simple blood test. Like blood pressure, cholesterol may be improved with changes in diet and exercise, but sometimes levels will remain high for reasons beyond control, like your genes! Medications may improve the ratio of good to bad cholesterol, lowering your risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
What are triglycerides? Triglycerides are the most abundant form of fat in the body. When you get your cholesterol checked, you can also find out your triglyceride level. The reason this is important is that it represents how much fat is floating in your blood. High triglyceride levels are significantly associated with heart disease, heart attack, and stroke due to the association with atherosclerosis.
More about cholesterol: With HDL (good) cholesterol, higher levels are considered better, while a low LDL (bad) cholesterol level is considered good for your heart. Triglycerides are the most common form of fat found in the body. A high LDL level indicates an increased risk of heart disease. Atherosclerosis in arteries carrying blood to the brain can also lead to a stroke. Your total cholesterol score is calculated using the following equation: HDL + LDL + 20 percent of your triglyceride level.
Eating a varied diet that consists of lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and sources of “good fats” such as fish and nuts will help you manage your cholesterol levels.Prevention
If you have health insurance, then make that one appointment per year and be sure to have your cholesterol checked every five years or more often if you are at risk.
Health problems do not simply improve if ignored. Knowing your numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk – are significantly related to taking action to improve your long-term quality of life. Simple changes like improving your diet and increasing your activity level can significantly cut the risk of cardiovascular diseases both today and tomorrow.
See your doctor and get curious about your health!
Mike Reynolds is an LNA Nurse Extern with Community Health Improvement at the University of Vermont Medical Center. He is currently a senior in the BSN program at UVM.