Cholesterol is one of life’s quintessential double edged swords. It cuts both ways, to the bad side, when cholesterol is present in excessive amounts, it can cause heart attacks and even strokes by injuring blood vessels. To the good side it is needed for certain important bodily functions.

The human body needs cholesterol to assist in digesting dietary fats, making hormones, building cell walls, and other processes. Cholesterol is carried to various body tissues by lipoproteins within the bloodstream, to be stored, excreted or used. An abundance of cholesterol in the bloodstream can begin to buildup in arteries, especially the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. This building up process over time can injure the arteries by the accumulation of cholesterol laden plaque (called atherosclerosis).

In the United States, more than 90 million American Adults have high blood cholesterol; since cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease it makes heart disease the number one killer of both men and women in this country.

You may have had a cholesterol screening or you're aware of the two types of cholesterol (lipoproteins) called LDL and HDL. Both contribute to the health of your heart, and can be main factors in heart disease.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) many times referred to as "bad" cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is carried into the blood and is the main cause of harmful fatty buildup in arteries. The higher the LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, the greater the heart disease risk.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) referred to as "good" cholesterol. HDL cholesterol carries blood cholesterol back to the liver, where it can be eliminated. HDL helps prevent a cholesterol buildup in blood vessels. Low HDL levels increase heart disease risk.

LDL cholesterol levels become elevated in blood by eating too much of two nutrients: saturated fat, found mostly in animal products, and cholesterol, found only in animal products. Saturated fat raises LDL levels more than anything else in the diet.

Several other factors also affect blood cholesterol levels: Heredity, Weight, Exercise, Stress, Age and Gender
Heredity: Cholesterol problems often run in families. Inherited genes influence blood cholesterol levels.
Weight: Excess weight typically increases cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help lower cholesterol.
Exercise: Exercise tends to do two things, it lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, but it tends to also increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
Stress: Though stress can signal higher levels of cholesterol in the patient, it is typically due to peoples' tendency to eat fatty foods to console themselves during stress.
Age and gender: Cholesterol levels naturally rise as men and women age. Prior to menopause, women typically have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. Post menopausal women tend to increase their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

There are many other factors that contribute to increased heart disease risk besides cholesterol, they include: cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity. Combine any or all of these additional risk factors with elevated blood cholesterol, the risk of heart disease is even greater.

Don't get too scared though, the good news is most of the risk factors can be controlled by a change in lifestyle, changes in diet, exercising, behavior modifications, quitting smoking and even medications. However some risk factors can not be controlled; they include age (Men older than 45 and women older than 55), and family history of heart disease.

What signifies the difference between high or normal blood cholesterol?
Desirable blood cholesterol: Total blood cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL; LDL lower than 130 mg/dL.
Borderline high cholesterol: Total level is between 200 and 239 mg/dL or LDL is 130 to 159 mg/dL.
High blood cholesterol: Total level is greater than 240 mg/dL or LDL is 160 mg/dL or higher. For patients with heart disease, LDL above 100 mg/dL is too high. In addition, an HDL level less than 35 mg/dL is considered low and increases the risk of heart disease.
What to expect if you have high blood cholesterol: You may be prescribed a 6-month diet, exercise and/or weight loss program to bring levels down prior to beginning medication.


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