Cholesterol and heart disease: Deadly combination

Cholesterol pictures

Arteries Clogged by excess cholesterol

Many of those who have suffered from heart attacks, probably realize the importance of eating healthy in order to avoid repeating this very scary experience. What happens to your heart prior to the heart attack? Eating an unhealthy diet has the tendency to increase the LDL level in your blood and elevated LDL cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. LDL deposits on the artery walls, causing the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque.

Through years of keeping the same eating habits (including fast food dining, junk food etc.), the cholesterol plaque will cause thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries, a process called arteriosclerosis. Scary word, isn’t? The arteries that zigzag in the walls of your heart and supply blood and oxygen to the heart muscles are called coronary arteries. When coronary arteries are narrowed, they are incapable of supplying enough blood and oxygen to the heart muscle during exertion. Lack of oxygen to the heart muscle causes chest pain. The formation of a blood clot in the artery can cause a complete blockage of the artery and lead to the death of the heart muscle (heart attack). Arteriosclerotic disease of coronary arteries (coronary heart disease) is the most common cause of death in the United States, accounting for about 600,000 deaths annually. What a morbid statistic! Are you sometimes wondering if you are next in line? Well, a health club facility isn’t as far fetched as you think, so I guess you know what to do and get your butt, or legs, on the treadmill.

We all know now what LDL does to your body. Well, if there is a “bad”, then a “good” can’t be too far away. When I say “good”, I’m talking about HDL. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is called the “good cholesterol” because HDL cholesterol particles prevent arteriosclerosis by extracting cholesterol from the artery walls and disposing of them through the liver. It also interferes with the accumulation of cholesterol in the artery walls through the LDL cholesterol particles.
The risk of arteriosclerosis and heart attacks in both men and women is strongly related to HDL cholesterol levels. Low levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to a higher risk, whereas high HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a lower risk.

Very low and very high HDL cholesterol levels can run in families. Families with low HDL cholesterol levels have a higher incidence of heart attacks than the general population, while families with high HDL cholesterol levels tend to live longer with a lower frequency of heart attacks.
Like LDL cholesterol, life style factors and other conditions influence HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol levels are lower in persons who smoke cigarettes, eat a lot of sweets, are overweight and inactive, and in patients with type II diabetes. HDL cholesterol is higher in people who are lean, exercise regularly, and do not smoke cigarettes. Estrogen increases a person’s HDL cholesterol, which explains why pre-menopausal women generally have higher HDL levels than men do.
For individuals with low HDL cholesterol levels, a high total or LDL cholesterol blood level further increases the incidence of heart attacks.

Therefore, the combination of high levels of LDL cholesterol with low levels of HDL cholesterol is undesirable whereas the combination of low levels of LDL cholesterol and high levels of HDL cholesterol is favorable. Remember to always check your cholesterol blood test for the ratio of LDL to HDL. The total cholesterol is not a good indicator of your health. You will need to obtain the split between the HDL and LDL. Thus, the total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio (total/HDL) is a number that is helpful in predicting arteriosclerosis. The number is obtained by dividing total cholesterol by HDL cholesterol. (High ratios indicate higher risks of heart attacks, low ratios indicate lower risk). An average ratio would be about 4.5. Ideally, we want to be better than average. Thus, the best ratio would be 2 or 3 or less than 4.

All of this is getting pretty complicated, although I have tried my best to make it as user-friendly as possible. We all have many questions to ask our doctors, nutrition specialists, or even our dieticians. Moreover, you should pay attention to the following: Are they being clear in their explanations? This depends again on the specialist. You will need to get outside information to complement what is said between you and the medical professional. To a certain extent, books can be very helpful as well, they will allow you to know what questions to ask your doctor. For those who suffer a mild to dangerous heart attack, the first step after leaving the hospital is to get more information about the subject. Fear and ignorance can make you avoid reality. However, all the medical books available can still be difficult to comprehend when authors use medical terminology that only doctors can understand. Are there hidden secrets that they (the doctors) don’t want to share with us? They write books as if we are supposed to understand all their concepts, terminologies, and theories. Depending on how the author approaches the subject at hand, you will need to use a medical dictionary to understand the wording used in the book. It greatly confuses the reader who doesn’t know where else to turn. Although I haven’t had any heart attacks, I was curious and wanted to understand how the body works and how I can avoid such a terrible experience. A proactive approach will increase my chances of going through life without experiencing any of these ordeals. The power of information will enable me to go on and be more assertive when it comes to my health.

I am now sharing my knowledge with you and hopefully can help you understand how we can reduce the risk of becoming statistics by year’s end. Healthy eating and exercising are primary factors that will, in many cases, assure great health and reduce the LDL levels in your blood.
I’ve already mentioned some of the other factors that determine the LDL level in your blood. Some people are genetically predisposed to high LDL levels in the blood and do not voluntarily contribute (by eating at fast food restaurants) to elevated LDL levels. Others are aware of what they eat (fast food and sweets) but still go through life wondering what they did to deserve having a heart attack. Both heredity and diet have a significant influence on a patient’s LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol levels. For example, familial hyper-cholesterolemia (FH) is a common inherited disorder whose victims have a diminished number or no LDL receptors on the surface of their liver cells. The resulting decreased activity of the LDL receptors limits the liver’s ability to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood. Thus, affected family members have abnormally high LDL cholesterol levels in their blood. They also tend to develop arteriosclerosis and heart attacks during early adulthood. In order to lower LDL cholesterol, the activity level of the LDL receptors must be increased. LDL receptor activity can be increased through diets that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats and through prescription drugs.

Lowering LDL cholesterol involves losing excess weight, exercising regularly, and following a diet that is low in saturated fat. Drugs are prescribed when diet and exercise cannot reduce the LDL cholesterol to acceptable levels. Some of my acquaintances have used medication to resolve that problem. When all your options are exhausted, the use of prescription drugs can be the only alternative.

Dan Amzallag


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