PUBLISHED: 5:17 PM on Tuesday, September 19, 2006
September: National Cholesterol Education Month

High blood cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, which is the number one killer of both men and women in America. Luckily, for most people, high blood cholesterol can be lowered through diet, weight management, and physical activity.

Most people are aware of the dangers of high blood cholesterol. Yet, how many know that cholesterol is a necessary component to the health and well-being of the body?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in all parts of the body.

It is present in cell walls or membranes including the brain, nerves, muscle, skin, liver, intestines, and heart. The body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids used to help digest fat.

Only a small amount of cholesterol in the blood is needed to meet the body's needs. Each day, the liver makes about 1000 mg and, although there are no requirements for any additional cholesterol from food, individuals consume an additional 200-400 mg mainly through eating animal-based products.

Individuals can have high cholesterol and have no symptoms.

Therefore, it is recommended that all adults age 20 and older should have their blood cholesterol checked at least every five years. In tests, the blood cholesterol is classified as total, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). The risk for cardiovascular disease increases if you have any or all of the following:

• Total cholesterol of 240 or higher.

• LDL cholesterol of 160 or higher.

• HDL cholesterol below 40.

LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, carries cholesterol to the tissues and the arteries. High levels cause build up on the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood, the greater the risk for heart disease.

HDL is known as the "good" cholesterol because it takes cholesterol from the tissues to the liver where it is excreted from the body. A low level of HDL increases the risk for heart disease.

There are various factors that affect blood cholesterol levels. Some of the factors are not controllable, such as heredity, age and sex. However, some factors are manageable and through modification, blood cholesterol levels can be improved.

• Diet. Avoid or reduce consumption of the three nutrients in the diet that make LDL levels rise:

• Saturated fat, a type of fat found mostly in animal-based foods;

• Trans fat, found in foods made with hydrogenated oils such as stick margarine;

• Cholesterol, that comes only from animal products.

• Weight. Excess weight tends to increase LDL levels. Losing extra pounds may help lower LDL and raise HDL.

• Physical activity/exercise. Regular physical activity can raise HDL.

It also helps with weight loss, thereby lowering the LDL levels. Regular exercise is a total of at least 30 minutes of activity four or more times a week.

In celebration of National Cholesterol Education month, have your blood cholesterol levels checked. If you do have high LDL levels, know that it's easier to lower LDL levels than it is to raise HDL levels. To reduce levels of the "bad" cholesterol follow the guidelines provided for the factors previously discussed. For more information visit the following web site:

Dr. Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.