This month, American Heart Month, discussions of cholesterol will be played out thousands, if not millions of times, every day in physician’s offices across the nation.
To the patient who has been treated for years for high cholesterol, it can become routine. Yet, for the patient who is just newly discovering his/her elevated cholesterol, the information can be confusing.
There are just four numbers to make up the basic cholesterol blood panel, which every physician orders to check cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol, a building block of the outer layer of cells (cell membranes), is transported through the blood in the form of molecules known as “lipoproteins.” This is where the familiar LDL and HDL names originate. Triglycerides are the chemical form in which most fats exists in food, as well as in the body. These are the four pieces of the cholesterol panel — total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.
The first number that all patients will become familiar with is total cholesterol. This number represents the total amount of cholesterol present, loosely being the total of the LDL and HDL.
For many years, this was the only test available, and therefore, many patients still rely on this number. There is now the ability to break this into “good” cholesterol, HDL and “bad” cholesterol, LDL.
The second number, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is considered to be “good” cholesterol, and is thought to be a type of cholesterol that actually helps protect the heart and arteries. It is able to do this by depositing cholesterol in the liver, where it is removed by the body. Therefore, it is good to have a high level of HDL.
The third number, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is considered to be the “bad” cholesterol, and is thought to be the type of cholesterol that clogs the arteries. This is material that plays a major role in building plaques, which can block arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes. Therefore, it is good to have a low level of LDL.
The final number is triglycerides, a form of fat in the body, which is seen as a potential cause of plaque buildup in arteries, also causing arteries to become blocked.
The above four components of the cholesterol panel are looked at as a whole, and it is decided if treatment is needed. Diet and amount of exercise play a role, but it is being found that genetics probably play the largest role in having high cholesterol. This means, that if a person’s blood relatives have high cholesterol, then there is a good chance that the person will have high cholesterol as well. The standard age for beginning cholesterol checks is age 40, but can be started earlier if there is a family history of high cholesterol.
The treatment of cholesterol needs to be addressed on a case to case basis, as there is a broad range of options. These range from natural treatments, to ones that need a prescription. Only after the blood tests for cholesterol is your physician able to recommend treatment options.
Dr. Seth Ruggles, North Coast Professional Corp., is affiliated with Firelands Regional Medical Center. He is accepting new patients.