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Understanding your cholesterol numbers

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Health column by Jessica Bickett

By The Staff

Laboratory tests play an important role in your health care. One reason lab tests are done is to screen for diseases or risks for developing a specific disease or condition. For example, a leading risk factor for heart disease is having elevated cholesterol levels. It is important to not only know your cholesterol levels, but to understand the results and the factors that can affect the results and what you can do to improve them. Understanding your condition can give you confidence to improve or maintain your current health status. 

A lipid profile, or lipoprotein profile, tells the amount of fats in your blood. It is important that you are fasting (nothing to eat or drink) for at least 8-12 hours before your test. If you are not fasting the results will not be accurate. A lipid panel usually includes the following: total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol, and triglycerides. A desirable level for total cholesterol is under 200 mg/dl. LDL-cholesterol is also known as bad cholesterol. It is the primary source for buildup in the arteries. An optimal level for LDL-cholesterol is under 100 mg/dl. HDL-cholesterol is the good cholesterol. It is responsible for keeping the arteries clean. Ideal levels for HDL-cholesterol is 60 mg/dl or above. Triglycerides are another type of fat in our bodies. They can also raise your risk of heart disease. A level under 150 mg/dl is desirable for triglycerides. Desirable cholesterol levels for children are different from adults.

Along with your lab results, your doctor will consider your general health, family history and other factors to determine the next step of your treatment or diagnosis.

Cholesterol levels can be lowered by choosing healthful foods, exercise, and, if needed, losing weight. Try to choose lean meats, low fat dairy products, a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Try to limit fried foods, egg yolks, organ meats like liver, brains or kidneys and high fat meats like sausage, bacon and hot dogs. If your triglycerides are high, you should also watch concentrated sweets in your diet, such as soft drinks, fruit juices, desserts, and candies. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity is recommended each day for all adults. Your doctor may also prescribe a cholesterol lowering medication. If you are taking a cholesterol lowering medication, it is still important to follow a low fat diet and get adequate physical activity. 

About 100 million Americans have high cholesterol, which is a leading risk factor for heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of males and females in the United States. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years. 

You are responsible for your health care. If you have never had your cholesterol levels checked, discuss this with your doctor. Whatever tests or procedures your doctor orders ask for information about the test or research it on your own. Then make a list of any questions you may have so you and your doctor can discuss the best treatment options for you. 

Jessica Spalding Bickett, MBA, RD, LD is a community dietitian with Lincoln Trail District Health Department. Nutrition counseling is available for children and adults by appointment.