Cholesterol is an essential component of animal cell membranes; as such, it is synthesized by all animal cells.

Regardless of its bad name, cholesterol is essential for life. Aside from its structural role in membranes, it is also vital in the production of steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile acid.

So, although high levels are a risk factor for disease, without any cholesterol, we could not survive.

The World Health Organization estimates that raised cholesterol levels are responsible for 2.6 million deaths each year. Given such prevalence, it is no surprise that misinformation about cholesterol is rife.

Cholesterol balance is really a function of what we eat but also our genetics. A person can be born with a genetic tendency to not process cholesterol efficiently.

Because it’s genetic it has been called familial hypercholesterolemia, and it might be as common as 1 in 200 people.

Even if you have a healthy weight, your cholesterol can be abnormal.

Other factors that impact your cholesterol are the foods you eat, your exercise habits, whether you smoke, and how much alcohol you drink.

Cholesterol levels are affected by genetics, thyroid function, medications, exercise, sleep, and diet. People who exercise are less likely to see elevations in cholesterol from eating cholesterol compared with sedentary people.

High cholesterol leads to silent buildup of plaque in arteries until it is so severe that strokes or heart attacks occur.

You don’t go to the store and buy a package of cholesterol, but you do buy red meat, cheeses, and eggs. Red meat contains saturated fat and cholesterol.

Cholesterol is an animal product, so items that contain saturated fat will not only increase cholesterol but increase specifically the ‘bad,’ or LDL, cholesterol, which then gets deposited in the arterial wall of our blood vessels.

Your target level of cholesterol is based on whether you have a history of certain diseases – like heart attack and stroke – and your risk of developing these issues, which is based on things like age and whether you have high blood pressure.

For those of us who have not had any cardiovascular problems, the LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl).

But if you have heart or vascular disease – history of heart attack, stroke, or other arterial vascular disease – and especially if you have diabetes, the LDL cholesterol target should be less than 70 mg/dl, if not lower.

Aside from taking medications to lower your cholesterol, you can also improve your cholesterol by maintaining a healthy weight, eating the right foods, exercising, avoiding smoking, and avoiding excessive alcohol use.

In the America that I love, statins are very effective in lowering cholesterol and are considered safe.

Professor Randolph M. Howes, MD PhD, is surgeon, scientist and patient advocate who lives in the Kentwood area.

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