High Cholesterol And Heart Disease In Women
Cholesterol builds up in the arteries of the heart and is a major risk factor for heart disease – the leading cause of death – and a reliable source of information for women.
High cholesterol levels in the blood increase the risk of heart disease or heart attack.
In 2013, nearly half of American women over the age of 20 had high cholesterol. And many women are unaware of their cholesterol levels.
Both men and women have high cholesterol, which puts them at higher risk for heart disease. But women need to be aware of some important differences – mainly related to hormones – to monitor their cholesterol levels throughout their lives.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy fat that the body uses to make cells, hormones and other important substances, such as vitamin D and bile (a fluid that helps with digestion). Cholesterol is packaged in particles called lipoproteins and travels through the bloodstream.
There are two main types of lipoproteins
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, sometimes called “bad cholesterol,” carries cholesterol to where the body needs it.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, sometimes called “good” cholesterol, takes cholesterol to the liver, where it is broken down.
What does high cholesterol have to do with heart disease in women?
High cholesterol is also called hyperlipidemia, or abnormal blood lipids.
If your LDL cholesterol is higher than normal and your HDL cholesterol is too low, you may be at higher risk for heart disease.
When there is too much LDL cholesterol in your blood, it builds up on the walls of your blood vessels.
HDL cholesterol helps remove cholesterol from the blood. However, when HDL levels are too low, there is not enough HDL cholesterol to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood vessels.
Over time, LDL in the blood vessels builds up and turns into a substance called plaque. Plaque narrows the arteries, hardens them and restricts blood flow. This is called atherosclerosis and is considered a form of heart disease.
In general, high cholesterol – and especially LDL – means a higher chance of having a heart attack or stroke over the course of a lifetime.
What is the difference between women’s and men’s cholesterol?
In general, women have higher levels of HDL cholesterol than men, but this is due to a female hormone called estrogen.
According to research by Trusted Source at the National Institutes of Health, it has also been shown that women’s cholesterol levels vary with the phase of the menstrual cycle due to changes in estrogen levels.
As estrogen levels rise, HDL cholesterol also rises, peaking during ovulation. Conversely, LDL and total cholesterol levels fall as estrogen levels rise, reaching their lowest point just before menstruation.
As women enter menopause between the ages of 50 and 55, cholesterol levels change in many individuals.
During menopause, total and LDL cholesterol levels tend to increase and HDL cholesterol levels tend to decrease. As a result, women who have always had good cholesterol levels may experience elevated cholesterol levels later in life.
In addition, pregnancy increases a woman’s risk of heart disease, especially certain pregnancy complications (such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes).
Total cholesterol levels may increase during pregnancy, but levels usually return to normal after pregnancy.
Risk factors for heart disease in women
In general, men have a higher risk of heart disease than women. However, a number of risk factors increase the risk for women, especially during pregnancy and after menopause.
These include but are not limited to
- History of heart disease
- Lack of exercise
- Weight gain
- poor diet
- Familial hypercholesterolemia (HF)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- Hypertension in pregnancy
- Gestational Diabetes
What is considered normal cholesterol for women?
High cholesterol is defined as a total cholesterol level of 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) or higher; it applies to men and women 20 years of age and older.
For women, an HDL level below 50 mg/dl is considered a serious risk factor for heart disease; an HDL level greater than 60 mg/dl reduces the risk of heart disease.
If you are a woman, it is recommended that you work to maintain your LDL levels.
- Less than 100 mg/dL if you do not have heart disease
- Less than 70 mg/dL if you have heart disease or have several risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, age 55 or older, smoking, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease.
How often should I have my cholesterol checked?
Women over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol levels measured every 5 years. Women with high-risk factors for heart disease should have their cholesterol checked more often.
It is very important for women to keep track of their cholesterol levels after menopause. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends that women between the ages of 55 and 65 have their cholesterol checked every one to two years. Older women should be screened once a year.
How can I lower my cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease?
Having your cholesterol levels checked by your doctor is the first step in understanding your risk of heart disease.
There are several ways to lower your cholesterol, including medications that your doctor may prescribe.
Statins are the most common medications used to treat high cholesterol. If statins don’t work, your doctor may prescribe a different medication, especially if he or she thinks you have a high risk of heart attack or stroke, or if you have familial high cholesterol.
Diet and lifestyle are also very important in lowering your cholesterol levels. Here are some lifestyle tips that can help you lower your cholesterol levels and stay healthy
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- If you smoke, give up smoking.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, fiber, and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Avoid foods high in sugar such as sweets, sodas, and juices.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
High cholesterol and heart disease tend to occur later in women than in men, but heart disease remains the leading cause of death in American women.
Premenopausal women are more likely than men to have high HDL cholesterol levels due to a hormone called estrogen. However, for most women, LDL cholesterol levels tend to rise and HDL levels tend to fall after menopause.
There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, so the only way to know if you have high cholesterol, especially after menopause, is to have your doctor check you regularly.
The sooner you treat high cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease, the less likely you are to develop heart disease.