Why Cholesterol Matters for Women
Most women are at risk for high cholesterol and don’t even know it. About 45 percent of women over age 20 have a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher, which is considered high, but the American Heart Association survey found that 76 percent of women said they were unaware of their cholesterol levels.
Even scarier, triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that is usually measured along with cholesterol, put women at even greater risk than men. This is a problem because women’s cholesterol levels fluctuate after menopause and tend to increase as they age, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Knowing your cholesterol levels and how to control them is a big step toward good health.
Know your high and low cholesterol levels
You know it can be dangerous to go overboard. What is cholesterol? Where does it come from? And is it all bad?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in every cell in the body. It is either produced in the body or absorbed from food. The body needs cholesterol to make important steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and vitamin D. It also makes bile acids in the liver, which absorb fat during digestion.
So you need some cholesterol, but you don’t need bad cholesterol. When there is too much bad cholesterol in the blood, it builds up in the body’s arteries. These deposits are called plaque and can cause atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This is a major cause of vascular problems such as heart attacks and strokes.
Total cholesterol level is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood, and it is made up of several components
- LDL cholesterol: LDL stands for “low-density lipoprotein”. This is the “bad cholesterol” and contributes directly to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Very low-density lipoprotein, or VLDL cholesterol, is another type of lipoprotein that is a precursor to LDL.
- Total cholesterol is composed of VLDL cholesterol + LDL cholesterol + HDL cholesterol.
- HDL cholesterol: HDL stands for “high-density lipoprotein”. Experts believe that at optimal levels (about 50 mg/dL), it helps the body get rid of LDL cholesterol.
So, these pieces circulate through your system, and here’s what happens: The bad parts – the LDL particles – are like soap scum in your pipes that like to stick to the walls of your arteries. When they stick together, they cause an inflammatory response, and your body starts turning them into plaque. Plaque in your blood vessels can cause high blood pressure by causing them to tighten hard and restrict blood flow to vital organs like the brain and heart muscle. It can also cause fragments to break off, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
And guess what? This buildup can start as early as your 20s.
What do you need to know about triglycerides?
In addition to cholesterol, you may have heard of triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the blood. Women should pay special attention to this.” High triglyceride levels seem to predict an even higher risk of heart disease in women than in men.” Mihos says.
When you consume more calories than you need, your body converts the extra calories into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells.
Triglycerides are used by the body to provide energy, but people with excess triglycerides are at higher risk for medical problems such as cardiovascular disease. Heavy alcohol consumption and eating foods containing simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches), saturated fats and trans fats can lead to high triglyceride levels. High levels can also cause diabetes, low thyroid activity, obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, kidney disease, and other health problems.
Triglycerides also circulate on particles in the blood, which contribute to the formation of plaque. Many people with high triglyceride levels also have other risk factors for atherosclerosis, such as high LDL, low HDL, or abnormal blood sugar (glucose) levels. Genetic studies have also shown an association between triglycerides and cardiovascular disease.ve high cholesterol.
What is your cholesterol level?
Standard lipid tests usually measure the concentration of total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. LDL cholesterol levels are usually estimated from these numbers by using an established formula that has recently been modified and refined by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
So what’s your goal? According to Mihos, the ideal LDL cholesterol level is under 70 mg/dL and the ideal HDL cholesterol level for women is closer to 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL. As Mihos points out, total cholesterol should be well below 200 mg/dL.
Why does cholesterol affect women differently?
In general, women have higher HDL cholesterol than men, and it seems that the female hormone estrogen increases this good cholesterol. However, as with many things, this all changes during menopause. During this phase, many women’s cholesterol levels change – total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol rise and HDL cholesterol falls. As a result, women who had better cholesterol levels during their reproductive years may develop high cholesterol later in life. Of course, genetics and lifestyle can also play a role.
How to lower your cholesterol
If you’ve ever been told you have high cholesterol, or you just want to avoid it, what can you do?
There are many ways to manage it.
Medication: Depending on your overall risk of cardiovascular disease, you may be treated with cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins. The decision to use a statin is based on all of these factors and a woman’s overall risk of heart attack or stroke, including her LDL cholesterol level.
If you already have signs of vascular disease or atherosclerosis, or if you are at high risk for cardiovascular disease, taking a preventive statin is highly recommended because it helps treat arterial plaque and lower LDL cholesterol,” Mihos says.
Diet and lifestyle “Diet and lifestyle are very important in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Even in women for whom cholesterol-lowering drugs are recommended, a healthy lifestyle can improve the effectiveness of these drugs,” Mihos says.”
Here are some ways to maintain a lifestyle that promotes healthy cholesterol levels
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes, at least five days a week.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and soluble fiber, such as beans and oats, to help lower LDL.
- Avoid sugary drinks and juices in favor of unsweetened water or tea, and minimize the intake of simple carbohydrates such as baked goods and candy.
- Drink alcohol in moderation, especially if you have high triglycerides.
- Consider a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wheat bread, and fish. Use olive oil (instead of butter) and spices (instead of salt).
- Eat monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish such as salmon. This has a positive effect on cholesterol.