High cholesterol can dramatically affect a person's long-term health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with high total cholesterol have approximately twice the risk of developing heart disease as people whose cholesterol levels are ideal. And contrary to what many people may think, women are no less susceptible to high cholesterol than men.
Cholesterol can be a confusing topic. Though cholesterol has a bad reputation, that stature can be somewhat misleading. That's because there are two types of cholesterol, one of which actually reduces a person's risk for heart disease and stroke. High-density lipoprotein, often referred to as "HDL" or "good" cholesterol, absorbs low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, or "LDL," and carries it back to the liver, which then flushes it from the body. HDL accounts for a minority of the body's cholesterol. Unfortunately, the majority of cholesterol in the body is LDL, high levels of which can contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing a person's risk for heart disease and stroke.
A 2015 report from the American Heart Association indicated that more than 73 million American adults have high LDL cholesterol. The 2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey found that, between 2009 and 2011, the number of Canadians with unhealthy levels of LDL increased significantly with age, with 40 percent of men and women between the ages of 40 and 59 suffering from unhealthy LDL levels.
Women may think that the presence of the female sex hormone estrogen can positively impact their cholesterol levels. While estrogen tends to raise HDL levels, its presence alone does not mean women are out of the woods with regard to cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke. In fact, the CDC notes that heart disease remains the leading cause of death among women.
High LDL cholesterol levels do not mean women will automatically develop heart disease, but women who receive such a diagnosis should take the following steps to lower their LDL levels so they can live longer, healthier lives.
• Eat right. Avoid foods that are high in fat, especially saturated fats and trans fats. The AHA notes that foods that contain saturated fats contribute to high levels of LDL. Fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, lard and cream, butter, and cheese are just a few of the foods that contain saturated fats. Those foods all come from animal sources, but many baked goods and fried foods are also high in saturated fat and should be avoided. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are heart-healthy foods that can help women lower their LDL levels and reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease.
• Exercise regularly. Routine physical activity can help women lower their LDL levels, especially when such exercise is combined with a healthy diet. The Office on Women's Health recommends women get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week. Speak with your physician to learn which exercises are most appropriate for someone in your condition. Women who want to do more than aerobic activity can still meet their exercise requirements by combining moderate and vigorous cardiovascular exercise with muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week.
• Quit smoking. Smoking can accelerate the damage already being done by high cholesterol. While research does not indicate that smoking directly impacts LDL levels, the toxins produced and inhaled from cigarettes can modify existing LDL, making it more likely to cause inflammation.
Cholesterol does not discriminate, and women need to be just as mindful as men when monitoring their total cholesterol levels.