Cholesterol, in the right amounts, helps the body systems run smoothly. But in excess, it can lead to debilitating and even deadly illness. A waxy substance found in animal fats, cholesterol is necessary for cell regeneration. But it can also build up in fatty deposits in the arteries, leading to heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol can be inherited, but with healthy lifestyle choices including a healthy diet and regular exercise, it can be prevented and even reversed.
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High cholesterol is asymptomatic, and only shows itself through blood tests. Tests should be administered every five years beginning at age 20, and more frequently if a problem presents itself. People with a family history or factors like smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure may be at higher risk for high cholesterol.
Proteins in the blood carry different types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are harmful, building up on artery walls and narrowing the passages for oxygenated blood. Conversely, HDL (high-density lipoproteins) gather excess cholesterol and return it to the liver, keeping the circulatory system in good working order.
Some genetic factors may come into play, but high cholesterol is largely preventable. A sedentary lifestyle, poor dietary choices, smoking, and carrying extra body fat are all factors that can be changed.
High cholesterol is identified through a test called a lipid panel. The test measures the levels of HDL, LDL and total cholesterol, as well as the triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. Patients should fast for at least 12 hours prior to the test in order to get the most accurate reading.
Making healthier lifestyle choices can have an enormous impact on cholesterol levels. Regular exercise, smoking cessation and a better diet can lower LDL and raise HDL levels dramatically. A healthy diet consists mainly of plentiful fresh fruits and vegetables, and contains a bare minimum of animal fats and commercially-produced baked goods. Look for high fiber and avoid trans fats. As for exercise, even a short daily walk and a few minutes with light hand weights in front of the TV can make an impact.
If diet and moderate exercise do not bring cholesterol numbers to desired levels, a doctor can prescribe medications that can block cholesterol production and help the body remove excess cholesterol from the blood.
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