Cholesterol is actually used to make cell membranes and create hormones, as well as for other functions inside the body. Cholesterol is a blood fat (lipid) and is used to transport certain molecules throughout the body. High levels of cholesterol, however, can be a problem and have been implicated in heart disease and stroke. Plaque, which is a waxy substance that contains cholesterol and builds up inside arteries, can narrow blood vessels and block circulation.
Age, gender, and hereditary factors have an impact on cholesterol levels. Cholesterol tends to rise slightly with age, and women who are past menopause have higher cholesterol levels than younger women. Being overweight or obese can also affect cholesterol levels. However, the most recent Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee of the US Department of Agriculture indicated that cholesterol in the diet is “not a nutrient of concern.”
Dietary changes were once the major recommendation for high cholesterol. However, with the new guidelines they are less of a factor. Dietary changes for weight loss are still recommended along with regular exercise. A number of medications are used to treat high cholesterol, of which the most common are statin drugs. Other medications include nicotinic acid, fibric acids, cholesterol absorption inhibitors, and bile acid sequestrants. PCSK9 inhibitors are a new class of medications that can reduce “bad” or LDL cholesterol. They must be given by injection and are used by those who can't tolerate statins or who have a family history of very high cholesterol.
Aside from cholesterol, many lifestyle activities may help prevent heart disease. Not smoking is one of the most important, as smoking greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Diabetes and high blood pressure both increase the risk of heart disease. A healthy diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables provides fiber and vital nutrients and will help. Regular physical activity can help people maintain their weight and reduce stress.
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