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Know Your Cholesterol To Reduce Heart Attack, Stroke Risks

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

September is national Cholesterol Awareness Month, a good time to remind people that keeping cholesterol at healthy levels over a lifetime dramatically reduces one's risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a University of Iowa researcher and clinician.

"Everyone should know their cholesterol numbers," said Jennifer Robinson, M.D., director of the Lipid Research Clinic and associate professor of epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health. "If not, make it a point to get your cholesterol checked and talk to your doctor about your personal risk of a heart attack or stroke and what you can do to reduce that risk."

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is necessary for the body to function normally. The human body produces enough cholesterol for its needs. When there is too much cholesterol in the body -- because of diet or the rate at which it can be processed -- it is deposited in the blood vessels, which can lead to narrowing of the arteries and increased risks for cardiovascular diseases.

"Many people have had their cholesterol checked at least once, and many are familiar with HDL ("good") and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels," said Robinson, who also is a faculty member in internal medicine in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. "The key is to use this information and also develop healthy lifestyle habits that are the foundation for heart attack and stroke prevention."

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These include, beginning as early as age 2, eating a heart-healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity and avoiding excessive weight gain. Robinson offers these guidelines:

--A heart healthy diet is low in fat and rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. About 30 percent of calories should come from fat, mainly from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils such as olive and canola oil. Lean meats and skim or low-fat dairy products are good choices since they have less of the saturated fat that can raise cholesterol. Avoid trans fats found in commercial baked goods and fried foods since it also raises cholesterol. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which reduce the risk of cancer and diabetes along with heart disease and stroke.

--Moderate physical activity, at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is recommended to maintain health and prevent chronic disease. About 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five to six days a week can help people lose weight and keep it off.

For people with other risk factors or very high cholesterol levels, drug treatment may also be needed. People who have had a heart attack, stroke or other indications of blocked arteries, and those with diabetes, are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke in the future. Therefore, these people may need to take a statin in addition to following a healthy lifestyle.

Statins are safe, effective drugs that can lower "bad" cholesterol levels by 40 to 60 percent. In more than 100,000 people who have participated in clinical studies, statin drugs have lowered the chance of a heart attack, stroke and death in direct relation to how much cholesterol is lowered, Robinson noted. While statins may cause muscle aches in some people, people often can take a different statin or one at a lower dose without problems, she added.

"Statins are very safe drugs. In fact, they are safer than aspirin," Robinson said.