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High cholesterol affects children, young adults and older individuals — and many do not know they have it because high cholesterol usually doesn’t present noticeable symptoms.

However, it is a major risk factor for heart disease, as cholesterol deposits on the coronary walls narrow the arteries, slowing or blocking blood flow to the heart.

If sufficient blood and oxygen cannot reach your heart, the result may be a heart attack; and heart disease causes almost 600,000 deaths annually – the most common cause of death in the United States.  

Cholesterol is a fatty chemical found mainly in foods that come from animals, and is an important part of the outer membrane of the cells in the body. 

Cholesterol contains two types of lipoproteins; one is LDL (low-density lipoprotein); and the other is HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL is the carrier of cholesterol in the blood and is the main cause of the dangerous fatty buildup in the arteries.

As high levels of LDL are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol.

More than 102 million American adults over age of 20 have total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dl, which is considered in the unhealthy range. Of these 102 million, more than 35 million have levels higher than 240 mg/dl, which now puts them at high risk for coronary heart disease.

There are many factors which help determine a high or low LDL level. This level may be affected by not just what we eat and heredity, but by how quickly our body produces “bad” cholesterol and disposes of it.

Prior to menopause, women generally have total cholesterol levels lower than men of the same age; but after age 50, women often have higher levels than men of the same age.

Most of us do not realize that our bodies make all of the cholesterol it needs, and we do not require any additional cholesterol from the foods we eat. 

Two nutrients in food that cause “bad” cholesterol to rise are saturated fats from animals and cholesterol from animal products. Lowering these may prevent “bad” cholesterol from rising.

Being overweight also increases “bad” LDL levels, so maintaining a healthy weight not only lowers the “bad” LDL level, but also helps reduce triglycerides and raise “good” HDL levels.

Exercise and regular physical activity may lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol levels. For adults, that means at least one-to-two hours of moderate activity per week.

Although alcohol increases “good” cholesterol, it doesn’t lower “bad” cholesterol, and doctors do know that alcohol damages the liver and heart muscle.

Lifestyle changes that occur due to stress (like eating foods higher in saturated fats) may contribute to higher levels of blood cholesterol in some individuals.

Medications prescribed for other medical conditions can cause high cholesterol. Prior to receiving a new prescription, alert your doctor if you have high cholesterol.

Maintaining a desirable blood cholesterol level is very important to the prevention of heart disease. An annual physical will allow you and your doctor to monitor your cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

As a general rule, consume low-fat and high-fiber foods, maintain a healthy weight, do not smoke and exercise regularly.

For more information on cholesterol and other health care topics, visit the United Healthcare page at the following link: