Aging and Rising Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol levels tend to rise as we age, but when should one reach for a statin drug for presumably the rest of their life?
The matter should not be take lightly, it is a forerunner to heart disease — the No. 1 killer in the US, responsible for 37% of all deaths.
According to Louisiana State University AgCenter nutritionist, Beth Reames, one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop heart disease sometime in their lives. That’s a big percentage and the philosophy of wellness is to proactively address health risks before they become medical conditions.
As with all health issues, we can only respond to the science that is available at the moment. There are conflicting theories. Some suggest that rising LDL is not a threat, per se, but is a player in a biological conspiracy. Alternate theories label inflammation as the chief culprit. But until links between heart disease, C-Reactive Protein and Homocysteine (measures of inflammation) are more readily used, we must stick with the cholesterol yardstick, know our numbers and take proactive measures.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Cholesterol Keeps Rising Over Time
Remember the Disney story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? The brooms kept carrying buckets of water and, over time, an unmanageable ocean was formed.
The same phenomenon happens with cholesterol deposits; they keep building year by year and cause a narrowing of our artery walls. In some cases this leads to a coronary block and either angina or a cardiac arrest.
As children we start out with a low total cholesterol reading somewhere in the 30-70 mg/dL range. (The yardstick for measuring cholesterol and all its subcomponent parts is milligrams per deciliter). As maturing adults that number trends upward for most of us and breaks into the 200s by middle age.
If you haven’t had your cholesterol measured in a while, it’s high time, because it’s probably gone up. Aging boomers are having an impact on total population numbers. A recent report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that an estimated 63 million U.S. adults have high LDL cholesterol levels, and as a consequence, 38 million are at increased risk for heart disease.
Regardless of your age, you should begin to make lifestyle and dietary changes now that will keep this beast in its cage. Even the young should make adjustments, because they can more easily adopt lifelong dietary and lifestyle changes that will stave off a cholesterol problem later. First of all, it’s not all bad. Cholesterol is an odorless, white, waxy, powdery substance that is found in every cell of our bodies. We actually need a certain amount of it to sustain life. It is an important building block for cell membranes, hormones and vitamin D. It also aids in the digestion of fat into caloric energy.
Cholesterol consists of lipoproteins. A lipoprotein is a combination of fat (lipid) and protein that wraps around the individual fat molecules in our bodies, transporting them throughout our bodies and aiding in the digestion of fat.
But too much of a good thing turns into a bad thing. Many factors in modern society cause cholesterol to elevate as we age. Evolution never addressed the problem of too much cholesterol in our bodies because we never used to live this long. Therefore we have to take control, get smarter and take preventive measures. According to the National Institute of Health, the recommended cholesterol test is called a ‘lipoprotein profile.’ It measures the levels of total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in the blood. The lipoprotein profile is calculated from a small sample of blood after a 9 to 12-hour fast.
Know Your Numbers
The 3 numbers that are most closely monitored are HDL, LDL and triglycerides — the good, the bad and the ugly. LDL is singled out as the real bad guy and triglycerides are his general accomplice.
Think of HDL as Clint Eastwood. It actually sops up the harmful LDL which needs to be removed from the system. So, you want more HDL and less of LDL. Actually LDL is not in itself bad, it’s excess LDL that is bad. In fact without some LDL you could not survive. Aristotle’s “everything in moderation” rules.
Triglycerides are fats that, as the name implies, consist of three fatty acids attached to a molecule of glycerol. The role triglycerides play in heart disease is conflicting. But generally speaking, it is a good idea to have low triglyceride levels. O.K., so we want to keep our LDL number nice and low, but what’s the acceptable range? And when should we be concerned? According to the American Heart Association, adults age 20 or older should have their cholesterol levels checked minimally every five years. Unfortunately many people ignore this and walk around with elevated cholesterol levels without knowing it.
Here Are The Ranges For The Various Components:
|Total Cholesterol||< 200||200 – 239||> 240|
|LDL||< 100||100 -159||> 160|
|HDL||> 60||41 – 60||< 40|
|Triglycerides||< 150||150 -199||> 200|
|HDL Factor — Men||3.5||3.6 – 5.4||5.5|
|HDL Factor — Women||3.0||3.1 – 4.1||4.2|
Sources: American Heart Association and Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book: Controlling Cholesterol the Natural Way.
In the old days there was a simple decision process, doctors only monitored the total cholesterol count and when that got above 200, they would write a prescription for a statin medication to bring it down. Recent scientific advances now look at the interplay between the component parts
A New View on Cholesterol
New thought on cholesterol does not focus on the “total cholesterol count” but gives strong consideration to the ratio of its subcomponent parts — particularly the relationship between HDL and total cholesterol. Recall that HDL is the good stuff that actually removes LDL from our blood vessels.
Think of LDL and HDL as transport vehicles. LDL transports cholesterol to your arteries and deposits it there. HDL retrieves cholesterol from your arteries and expels it through the liver. So, if your HDL and LDL are in balance, if you are retrieving as much as you are depositing, theoretically you’re at less risk even though you may have a high total cholesterol count.
As an analogy, imagine that you have a crew of workmen dumping 100 wheelbarrow loads of dirt per hour into a pit, and another crew of workman removing dirt from that very same pit at the same rate of 100 wheelbarrow loads per hour. Dirt will never accumulate in that pit. Similarly, the same holds true for cholesterol. For example, let’s say you’re male with a total cholesterol of 200. According to our chart above, you would be categorized as borderline. But let’s say your HDL level is 60. Then the HDL ratio is calculated as follows:
HDL Factor = Total cholesterol / HDL
HDL Factor = 200/60=3.3
When we refer to the chart above, the 3.3 number is in the healthy zone for men. This is significant because there are many natural ways to elevate your HDL number.
Unfortunately, many schooled MD’s are still only looking at the total cholesterol number when they advise treatment, especially the prescription of statin drugs. You should discuss the HDL factor with your doctor and see if she agrees that your risk is lower and therefore you don’t need medications.
To be continued in our next post…