The most prominent health condition in my family is high cholesterol. All four of my maternal and paternal grandparents have been diagnosed with this condition, as well as my father, paternal aunt, both maternal uncles, and cousin. It seems that nearly everyone in my family that is over the age of 50 (except my mother) has been diagnosed with high cholesterol. My cousin is the only other break in this age barrier. He was diagnosed with high cholesterol at the age of 24. All my other family members who have high cholesterol were diagnosed between the ages of 44 and 54. This startling trend in my older family members has made me research the diagnosis, inheritance, treatment, and prevention of high cholesterol.
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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that the human body needs to function normally (“The American Heart” 27). Cholesterol is naturally present in cell walls or membranes everywhere in the body, including the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, liver, intestines, and heart (“FAQ” 29). The human body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat (“FAQ” 29). It takes only a small amount of cholesterol in the blood to meet these needs (“FAQ” 29). If a person has too much cholesterol in their bloodstream, the excess may be deposited in arteries, including the coronary arteries, where it contributes to the narrowing and blockages that cause the signs and symptoms of heart disease (“High Cholesterol”).
A simple blood test checks for high cholesterol (“High Cholesterol”). Simply knowing one’s total cholesterol level is not enough. A complete lipid profile measures the LDL (low-density lipoprotein [the bad cholesterol]), total cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein [the good cholesterol]), and triglycerides—another fatty substance in the blood (“The American Heart” 27). Government guidelines say healthy adults over the age of 20 should have this analysis every 5 years (“High Cholesterol”). A desirable total cholesterol level is 200 or lower (“The American Heart” 27). A desirable LDL is 100 (130-159 is borderline high; 160 is high; 190 is very high) (“The American Heart” 27). HDL, the “good cholesterol,” should be around 40 or greater (“High Cholesterol”). With HDL, the higher the number, the better, and is protective against heart disease (“High Cholesterol”).
Heredity can play a large part in having high cholesterol. Genes influence how high your LDL (bad) cholesterol is by affecting how fast LDL is made and removed from the blood (“FAQ” 30). One specific form of inherited high cholesterol that affects 1 in 500 people is called familial hypercholesterolemia, which often leads to early heart disease (“FAQ” 30). A person’s risk increases if a father or brother was affected by early heart disease before age 55 or a mother or sister was affected by early heart disease before age 65 (“High Cholesterol”). Even if a person does not have a specific genetic form of high cholesterol, genes play a role in influencing their LDL cholesterol level (“FAQ” 30). Other causes for high cholesterol are high weight, poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, poorly controlled diabetes, age, and gender.
Treatment for high cholesterol usually begins lifestyle changes for the person who was diagnosed. They are instructed to follow a low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet, increase their physical activity, and lose weight for about 3 months (“High Cholesterol”). If these changes alone do not lower one’s cholesterol enough, the doctor may consider prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medication (“High Cholesterol”). Even if the doctor prescribes medicine, the patient must still follow your cholesterol-lowering diet, be more physically active, lose weight if they are overweight, and control or stop all of their other coronary heart disease risk factors, including diabetes, and smoking (“High Cholesterol”).
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Prevention of high cholesterol is very similar to the treatment of it. Adoption of a healthier lifestyle, including aerobic exercise and a low-fat diet, should reduce the prevalence of obesity, high cholesterol, and, ultimately, the risk of coronary heart disease (“FAQ” 32). Eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, getting plenty of exercise, managing weight, and not smoking can help prevent high cholesterol (“FAQ” 32). Because cholesterol levels tend to increase with age, paying attention to diet and exercise is particularly important as we get older (“High Cholesterol”). Controlling other health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, is also important to reduce your overall risk (“High Cholesterol”).
Overall, I believe that I have the genetic predisposition for high cholesterol, but I now know the steps to prevent it. High cholesterol is a treatable and somewhat preventable condition, and with a few simple lifestyle changes, I can dramatically reduce my risk of developing it. As I get older, I will make sure to try to follow a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise, in hopes of not developing high cholesterol.
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