What Causes High Cholesterol and What Should We Do About it?

What is the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease? It seems that every other commercial on TV promotes a new miracle cholesterol-smashing solution. But what does science and experience tell us and how does this impact those ageing in place or the risk of needing in home health care or other aged care services? Let’s take a few minutes to sort out the facts – and dispel the myths – about the impact of elevated cholesterol on our hearts, our health, and longevity.

Identifying the Root Causes of High Cholesterol

According to the Australian Heart Foundation, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance necessary to make hormones and vitamin D, and to help you digest food. Without enough cholesterol, your body wouldn’t be able to produce the right hormones, Vitamin D and other materials that make digestion possible.

However, a variety of factors may conspire to raise cholesterol to unhealthy levels. High cholesterol means the amount in the body has gone from helpful and necessary to potentially dangerous. Major causes of elevated cholesterol include:

  • An unhealthy diet. The three major diet-driven risk factors are foods that contain:

    • Saturated fats (from animal protein)
    • Trans fats (commonly found in baked goods and microwave popcorn)
    • Foods that have a lot of cholesterol (like red meat and high-fat dairy products)
  • Being overweight. Obesity can skyrocket cholesterol to unhealthy levels.
  • Not enough exercise. Working out builds HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol. Inactivity has the opposite effect.
  • Smoking. Smoking doesn’t just impact your lungs. It also wreaks havoc on blood vessel walls, effectively making it easier for fatty deposits to move in.
  • Age. The ageing process reduces the body’s ability to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, impacting those ageing in place or in aged care services.
  • Diabetes. High blood sugar promotes another form of bad cholesterol called VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein). High blood sugar may also harm the lining of your arteries.

When all is said and done, many of the causes of high cholesterol are within our control. It’s within our power to choose what we eat, how much we exercise, whether or to not smoke (or to quit, if we do) and whether we embrace a healthy lifestyle. Well, these are all choices – but it’s not always that easy!

In many cases, we can stop chronic diseases like diabetes from developing. Other factors like age and genetics are out of our control. The trick is to tackle the things we can change and to be mindful of the things we can’t.  The help of a nurse at home or in home health care services can be an added bonus to support us with these changes.

How Cholesterol Paves the way to Heart Disease

Trouble starts when cholesterol reaches unsafe levels in our blood. When this happens, it begins sticking to artery walls. The more cholesterol builds up, the narrower our arteries become. This condition is referred to as atherosclerosis.

Over time, the flow of blood to the heart slows down. Since oxygen reaches your heart via your blood, your heart can be deprived of vital oxygen. You could begin feeling symptoms like chest pain. Eventually, blood flow can be totally blocked from reaching the heart. That’s when heart attacks happen.

Every year, more than17 million deaths worldwide are related to heart disease, and this is not just attributable to those ageing in place or in aged care services. While this is a shocking number, another statistic is more important: About 80% of heart disease deaths are preventable. Eight out of ten lives lost – that’s over 13 million deaths each year – could be avoided with proper education, lifestyle changes, and treatment.

The Low-Down on Lowering Cholesterol

From medication to meditation, from dietary changes to exercise regimes and breathing techniques, using support from in home care services, there are many ways to reduce cholesterol and hence the risk of heart disease. If you or a loved one need to manage high cholesterol, the most effective method will depend on how high your cholesterol is, your overall health, lifestyle and hereditary factors.

Here are three approaches to consider:

1. Is medicine the best medicine?

While medication may not be the first choice, sometimes it’s the quickest way to get cholesterol under control. Effective cholesterol-lowering drugs have been around for decades and include:

  • Statins. This is a type of drug that prevents the liver from producing cholesterol.
  • Bile acid sequestrants. These limit fat absorption from the food we eat.
  • Cholesterol absorption inhibitors. These lower triglycerides and limit cholesterol absorption
  • Niacin. This is a supplement that brings down LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides while boosting healthy HDL cholesterol.
  • PCSK9 inhibitors. This class of drug assists the liver in removing LDL cholesterol.
  • Fibrates. This medication is shown to lower triglycerides while building good cholesterol.
  • Red yeast rice, flaxseed and garlic. These over-the-counter supplements are also gaining popularity. However, there is no convincing evidence yet that these methods are effective for cholesterol reduction. It’s best to speak with your health provider or nurse at home before taking any of these supplements, some of which can produce unwanted side effects.

2. Alcohol and cholesterol: think before you drink

Can happy hour lead to a healthier heart? That depends on how often you drink, how much you drink, and to some extent what kind of beverages you are consuming.

Your body produces all of the cholesterol you’ll need to be healthy. The foods you eat do not need to supply any cholesterol at all. So, the first piece of promising news is that beer, wine, and liquor don’t contain any cholesterol. However, be mindful of what you mix with your drink. For instance, sodas and sweet liqueurs can be loaded with sugar.

Let’s take a quick look at three major booze groups:

  • Beer. Like other forms of alcohol, beer is free from cholesterol. However, it does contain carbohydrates, which can elevate triglycerides. Beer also has some plant sterols, which can flush cholesterol from your system. But the amount of plant sterols is too low to have much of an impact on cholesterol.
  • Spirits. Hard liquors such as vodka, gin, tequila, and whisky are not a source of cholesterol, but flavoured varieties often have sugar, which along with alcohol, can trigger excess triglycerides.
  • Wine. Unlike beer, which contains very low amounts of plant sterols, a plant sterol in red wine called resveratrol might be helpful for reducing inflammation and to prevent clotting. While these effects are short term, they might help boost “good” cholesterol. More research is needed but sipping your favourite Malbec in moderation might lessen the risk for certain heart issues.

So, what does “drinking in moderation” mean? The Australian Guidelines recommend healthy adults should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week to cut the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.  Older adults ageing in place or in aged care services who follow this guideline are less prone to a heart attack than seniors who drink heavily. If this limit is exceeded, drinking can wind up increasing cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

3. Heart healthy diets: Add these foods to lower cholesterol

Much has been shared about heart-healthy diets. But if you’re short on time (or patience), just grab this shopping list, or ask your home care agency to help you:

  • Oats. What you’ve heard is true: A hearty bowl of oatmeal or an oat-based breakfast cereal provides heart-healthy soluble fibre.
  • Whole grains. Whole grains such as barley and oat bran also give you heart disease fighting soluble fibre.
  • Beans. Beans offer many benefits. Along with being loaded with soluble fibre, they contain cholesterol-free protein and can be helpful when you’re trying to lose weight.
  • Nuts. Consuming a handful of nuts every day can reduce LDL (“bad” cholesterol) while providing other heart-protective nutrients.
  • Fruit. Pectin-rich fruits such as apples, grapes, and citrus may help reduce LDL cholesterol.
  • Fatty fish. Planning a meal around fish a couple of times a week provides healthy Omega-3 fats which can help lower bad cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and even help your heart rhythm stay normal.
  • Fibre supplements. While not as tasty as naturally occurring fibre, a couple of tablespoons of psyllium each day delivers around four grams of soluble fibre.

Check out this article for more information on developing heart healthy habits.


Resources

Cholesterol

High Cholesterol

What to know about Atherosclerosis

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

How to Lower Cholesterol

Cholesterol Medicines

Can Drinking Alcohol Affect Your Cholesterol Levels?

11 Foods that Lower Cholesterol

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