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Controlling cholesterol level important in warding off heart disease

By Robert Goetz | 502nd Air Base Wing OL-B Public Affairs | Aug. 31, 2010

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Maintaining good health is often a matter of keeping track of numbers.

One of the most important numbers people should know is their cholesterol level, because a level that is too high can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

During Cholesterol Awareness Month in September, health officials advise people to check their cholesterol level regularly and take steps to reduce it if it is too high.

"High cholesterol is potentially life-threatening, so controlling it is important," said Capt. Brian Lupfer, 359th Medical Operations Squadron physician assistant. "The only way to find out your cholesterol level is to check it, and that's something that should be done during a regular physical examination."

People as young as 17 should have their cholesterol level checked, Captain Lupfer said.

"You should check it every three to five years if it's normal," he said. "If it's abnormal, you should check it more often, whatever is deemed by your doctor."

Cholesterol, an important part of a healthy body, is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance in the bloodstream and in all body cells. Most of it is made by the body, dependent on a person's heredity, and about 25 percent of it from foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, butter, cheese and whole milk.

Cholesterol comes in two forms - LDL (low-density lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol, which forms a thick, hard substance that can clog blood vessels and block the flow of blood to the heart or brain, and HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or good cholesterol, which helps the body get rid of LDL cholesterol. Another form of fat in the bloodstream, triglycerides, can also have adverse effects if their level is too high.

High LDL cholesterol is one of the risk factors for heart disease. Others include diabetes, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), family history and smoking.

Captain Lupfer said the LDL level should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood for those with the most risk factors, less than 160 mg/dL for people with minimal risk and less than 130 mg/dL for those with moderate risk while the triglyceride level should be less than 150 mg/dL. Total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL. The HDL level should be greater than 40 mg/dL.

He said reducing the LDL level is key in warding off heart disease because the buildup of LDL cholesterol is what can block the flow of blood to major organs.

"That is what we base our treatment on," he said.

Captain Lupfer said diet - a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean protein - and exercise, a minimum of 30 minutes of cardiovascular work three times a week, are important components in maintaining a healthy cholesterol level and reducing inflated levels of bad cholesterol. Medications can also play a key role in treatment.

"Medications have proven to be very effective and safe, but there are side effects," he said. "Muscle pain and liver damage are very rare, but they can be the most serious side effects. That is why the condition of the liver must be monitored when a patient is on medication."

Captain Lupfer said high cholesterol can affect anyone, regardless of overall health, which is why it's vital to know those levels and come up with a plan to reduce bad cholesterol and elevate good cholesterol, if necessary.

"Cholesterol is necessary for life - to build hormones and cell walls, but too much of it can be bad," he said.

Keeping tabs on the cholesterol levels of active-duty personnel is an important part of the Air Force's mandatory annual physical examination, Captain Lupfer said.

"We keep a close eye on our population, especially those on active duty," he said. "We have to keep them healthy."