Cholesterol

Cholesterol isn't entirely the health villain it's made out to be, its name darkly linked to heart attack, stroke, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Our bodies need cholesterol, which is a type of lipid (another name for fat) to make cell membranes, key hormones like testosterone and estrogen, the bile acids needed to digest and absorb fats, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is so important to the body that the liver and intestines make it from scratch.

What is "bad" about cholesterol isn't the substance itself — in fact, we can't live without it — but how much of it is in the bloodstream.

The body packages cholesterol in two main particles: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called good cholesterol. Too much LDL in the bloodstream helps create the harmful cholesterol-filled plaques that grow inside arteries. Such plaques are responsible for angina (chest pain with exertion or stress), heart attacks, and most types of stroke.

What causes a person's LDL level to be high? Most of the time diet is the key culprit. Eating foods rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and easily digested carbohydrates boost LDL. Genes are sometimes at the root of high cholesterol, and some medications can boost LDL.

If you have high cholesterol, making changes in your diet can help bring it down into the healthy range. Exercise can help boost the level of protective HDL. Several types of medication, notably the family of drugs known as statins, can powerfully lower LDL. Depending on your cardiovascular health, your doctor may recommend taking a statin.

Cholesterol Articles

Medical memo: Cholesterol and prostate cancer

Ask men about their top health worries, and most will put cholesterol and prostate cancer high on the list. That's understandable, since unfavorable cholesterol levels contribute to heart attack and stroke, the first and fourth leading causes of death in America, and prostate cancer takes about 32,000 lives a year. Still, while most men understand the link between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, few suspect a link between cholesterol and cancer. Research is beginning to change that. (Locked) More »

April 2011 references and further reading

Patel M, Kim M, Karajgikar R, et al. Outcomes of patients discharged the same day following percutaneous coronary intervention. JACC Cardiovascular Interventions 2010; 3:851-8. Chambers CE, Dehmer GJ, Cox DA, et al. Defining the length of stay following percutaneous coronary intervention: an expert consensus document from the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions. Endorsed by the American College of Cardiology Foundation. Catheterization and Cardiovascular Interventions 2009; 73:847-58. Schermerhorn ML, O'Malley AJ, Jhaveri A, Cotterill P, Pomposelli F, Landon BE. Endovascular vs. open repair of abdominal aortic aneurysms in the Medicare population. New England Journal of Medicine 2008; 358:464-74. (Locked) More »

11 ways to prevent stroke

Some risk factors for stroke, such as family history and ethnicity, cannot be changed, but attention to factors like weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and physical activity can significantly reduce stroke risk. Here are 11 things you can do to stay stroke-free: (Locked) More »

Cholesterol deposits in the skin

Cholesterol is best known for its tendency to accumulate in the inner lining of arteries. In some people, though, it can also appear in small deposits in the skin. When these yellowish deposits form around the eyes, they are known as xanthelasma. The presence of a xanthelasma seems to signal that an individual is at increased risk of developing heart disease. Here is an image of what the deposits look like: (Locked) More »

Fish oil questioned as treatment for heart disease

Results of several studies suggest that taking fish oil does not benefit people who already have some form of heart disease, but eating fish is still likely to offer health benefits to most people. It could fight other types of cardiovascular disease or problems like depression. And it is a good treatment for high triglycerides. More »

Let's go nuts

Nuts contain healthy unsaturated fats, protein, and important nutrients like potassium, and there is ample evidence that eating nuts regularly helps protect against heart disease. Numerous studies have shown that if you put people on nut-filled diets, favorable effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure readings, and inflammatory factors follow. And in large epidemiologic studies, high nut consumption has been associated with lower rates of heart disease. An analysis of data from the Harvard-based Nurses' Health Study showed that having one serving of nuts a day is associated with a 30% lower risk of heart disease compared with having one serving of red meat a day. (Locked) More »