Cholesterol just part of health picture

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— Every April, hundreds of locals flock to get their cholesterol checked at the 9Health Fair, scheduled for Saturday.

While the total cholesterol value can be an important health factor, medical professionals like to look at the big picture, or the lipid profile. All blood tests administered at the 9Health Fair will measure total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, and triglycerides.

HDL, or "good" cholesterol, actually cleans cholesterol deposits out of your arteries. Values of at least 40 or above are the target level. It is relatively easy to elevate HDL with a good, consistent exercise program as well as estrogen and other prescription medications.

LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, invades the inner walls of the arteries, collecting in deposits that ultimately may block the entire vessel. LDL values should be under 130, or 100 if you're in a high-risk group. LDL cholesterol can respond to a low-fat, high-fiber diet or medication.

Triglycerides are specific types of fats in your blood stream. Some physicians think tryglyceride levels above 200 can cause harm if other factors are present, like low HDL. Triglyceride levels can be lowered by losing weight, getting adequate exercise and reducing refined carbohydrates like alcohol, sweets and white bread.

Blood tests don't tell the whole story, though.

Looking at your controllable and uncontrollable risk factors is equally important. Controllable risk factors are smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, diet, obesity and lack of a regular exercise program. Each factor can negatively contribute by damaging the walls of the arteries or lowering HDL and increasing LDL.

Uncontrollable factors are family history, age and gender. Some families are genetically structured to produce significant amounts of cholesterol regardless of diet and exercise. We are all at increased risk for many types of disease as we get older. Men are at higher risk of coronary heart disease from high cholesterol at earlier ages, but women's risk level quickly catches up once they have reached menopause. Estrogen helps maintain higher levels of HDL, making hormone replacement therapy an important consideration for menopausal women.

If you do get your blood tested at the upcoming 9Health Fair, be sure to look beyond your total cholesterol level. You will be receiving a printout listing many items, including HDL, LDL and triglycerides. This may be a good time to schedule a physical exam and ask for a full interpretation of your lipid profile results and risk factors.

If your family has a history of coronary heart disease, having a lipid profile checked at an early age and making heart-healthy diet and lifestyle choices may prevent you from following in the family footsteps.


Frani Jenkins, a longtime resident of Steamboat Springs, is a physician assistant at Steamboat Medical Group.

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