The Heart of the Matter

As the summer winds down, kids return to school and the pace of life picks up a beat or two, it’s a good time to think about maintaining an active lifestyle, even as the leaves start turning and the cooler weather finds its way back to New England. And though cold mornings and shorter days can change our workout habits, there are other habits that we can think about every day of the year, specifically what we put in our bodies.

September is National Cholesterol Education Month, and a perfect time to eliminate or reduce foods that are high in cholesterol, a major contributor to heart disease and strokes.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death and a major cause of disability in the United States.

Cholesterol plays an important and useful role in our bodies, but not all cholesterol is good for us. So-called “bad cholesterol” increases our risk of heart disease, stroke and developing type-2 diabetes. It can be controlled, to an extent, through diet and exercise, but susceptibility to the development of plaque on our arteries also can be naturally occurring, based on genetics.

The most common heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease, which often appears as a heart attack. Each year, an estimated 785,000 Americans have a new coronary attack, and about 470,000 have a recurrent attack. About every 25 seconds, an American will have a coronary event, and although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” it is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States, with women accounting for nearly half of heart disease deaths.

Understanding how cholesterol affects us and how to limit intake or mitigate existing damage are important considerations and well within our control.

Getting a Handle on Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found throughout the body. It is critical to the normal function of all cells. The body needs cholesterol for making hormones, digesting dietary fats, building cell walls, and other important processes. Our body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but cholesterol is also in some of the foods we eat.

When there is too much cholesterol in our blood, it can build up on the walls of the arteries. This buildup is called plaque. Over time, it can cause narrowing or hardening of the arteries a condition called atherosclerosis which can cause blockage and keep our heart from getting the blood it needs.

Keeping our cholesterol levels in check is one of the best ways to keep our hearts healthy, and to lower our chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. The American Heart Association recommends all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol, and other traditional risk factors, checked every four to six years. It typically only requires a simple blood test.

Our total cholesterol and HDL or good cholesterol are among numerous factors physicians use to predict our risk for a heart attack or stroke. Other risks include family history, if you are a smoker, diet, the amount we exercise, and if we have high blood pressure.

With HDL or good cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol puts us at higher risk for heart disease. People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower HDL cholesterol. Genetic factors, type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all result in lower HDL cholesterol. A low LDL or bad cholesterol level is considered good for our heart health.

Certain foods, such as red meats and full-fat dairy products, fried foods, potato chips and cookies tend to be high in cholesterol. Foods to limit or avoid include:

  • Butter and hard margarines
  • Lard and animal fats
  • Fatty red meat and sausages
  • Full-fat cheeses, milk, cream and yogurts
  • Coconut and palm oils, and coconut cream

Why Statins Are Helpful

If your cholesterol levels are off-kilter your physician may recommend dietary changes. He or she also may recommend that you take one of the primary medicines millions of Americans use to help their bodies regulate or offset the negative effects of cholesterola widely prescribed class of drugs called statins.

Statin drugs work by blocking the action of the liver enzyme that is responsible for producing cholesterol. Statins lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. At the same time, they lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Triglycerides are another type of fat, and they’re used to store excess energy from our diet. High levels of triglycerides in the blood, which are associated with atherosclerosis, can be caused by being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories).

People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol (bad) level and a low HDL cholesterol (good) level. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Statins help stabilize plaques in the arteries. Since their arrival on the market, statins have been among the most prescribed drugs in the United States, with about 17 million users. The statin medications that are approved for use in the U.S. include Lipitor, Livalo, Mevacor (or Altocor), Zocor, Pravachol, Lescol and Crestor. There also are generic versions available.

Statins also carry warnings that memory loss, mental confusion, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes are possible side effects. Due to the possibility of side effects that can damage the liver, patients taking statins are required to have periodic blood tests. It’s important to remember that statins may also interact with other medications.

If you experience any unexplained joint or muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness while taking statins, you should call your doctor immediately. Other potential side effects include headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle aches, tenderness or weakness, or abdominal cramping, bloating or constipation. Also, if you take a statin drug, tell your doctor about any over-the-counter or prescription drugs, herbal supplements, and vitamins you are currently taking or plan on taking. Certain foods such as grapefruits limit the effectiveness of statins and should not be consumed while taking this medication.

Keys to a healthy lifestyle include eating a balanced, heart-healthy diet; regular physical activity; limiting alcohol intake; and avoiding smoking. The winter will be here sooner than we may want, but remaining healthy is a year-round activity we can help control, regardless of our genetics or the temperature outdoors.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!