Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cholesterol and heart disease


Doctors measure your cholesterol level by taking a sample of blood and counting the milligrams of cholesterol in 1 deciliter (1⁄10 liter) of blood. When you get your annual report from the doctor, your total cholesterol level looks something like this: 225 mg/dl. Translation: You have 225 milligrams of cholesterol in every tenth of a liter of blood. Why does this matter? Because cholesterol makes its way into blood vessels, sticks to the walls, and forms deposits that eventually block the flow of blood. The more cholesterol you have floating in your blood, the more cholesterol is likely to cross into your arteries, where it may increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. As a general rule, the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) says that for adults, a cholesterol level higher than 250 mg/dl is a high risk factor for heart disease; between 200 mg/dl and 250 mg/dl is considered a moderate risk factor; below 200 mg/dl is considered a low risk factor. Cholesterol levels alone are not the entire story. Many people with high cholesterol levels live to a ripe old age, but others with low total cholesterol levels develop heart disease. Worse yet, recent research indicates that low cholesterol levels may increase the risk of stroke. In other words, cholesterol is only one of several risk factors for heart disease. Here are some more:
  • An unfavorable ratio of lipoproteins
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Age (being older is riskier)
  • Sex (being male is riskier)
  • A family history of heart disease
To estimate your own risk of heart disease/heart attack, check out the NCEP heart attack risk calculator at http://hin.nhlbi.nih.gov/atpiii/calculator.asp.

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