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Stroke Smart Magazine

Winter 2010

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Controlling Cholesterol Can Mean Life or Death

What you don’t know can hurt you. Finding out your cholesterol levels is important and ensuring you maintain healthy cholesterol levels can mean life or death. High cholesterol is a leading cause for stroke and heart attack.

Cholesterol is soft waxy fat found in the bloodstream and your body’s cells. Cholesterol is also found in some foods, such as eggs, meats and dairy products. The body needs cholesterol to form cell membranes, some hormones and vitamin D. However, cholesterol or plaque build-up in the arteries can block normal blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke. High cholesterol can also increase the risk of heart disease, a risk factor for stroke.

Because cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood on its own, it must be carried to and from cells by particles called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins.

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), often called "bad cholesterol," can cause plaque Ñ a thick, hard substance Ñ to build up and clog arteries. High levels of LDL and triglycerides (blood fats) can increase the risk of ischemic stroke. They also can bring on a transient ischemic attack (TIA), called a mini-stroke, where stroke symptoms often go away within 24 hours.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL), often called "good" cholesterol, can reduce stroke risk. HDL filters cholesterol out of the body by carrying it away from the tissues to the liver. High levels of HDL might protect against stroke and heart attack.

Many things can affect cholesterol levels. Some can be changed and some cannot.

Things you can change:

  • Diet - Foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol can increase cholesterol levels.
  • Weight - Being overweight can increase your cholesterol levels.
  • Exercise - People who are not active tend to have higher cholesterol levels.

Things you cannot change:

  • Family History - If someone in your family has high cholesterol, you are more likely to have high cholesterol.
  • Age - Most people experience an increase in cholesterol levels until about the age of 65.
  • Gender - Women under 50 tend to have lower cholesterol and those in menopause have higher levels.

People older than age 20 should have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. Men older than 45, women over 55, people with a family history of high cholesterol and those who know they have high cholesterol should be checked more often.

Consult with your health care provider about your cholesterol levels. If diet and exercise don’t lower your cholesterol to healthy levels, your physician can prescribe medications that can help.

For more information on managing your cholesterol levels, visit stroke.org/cholesterol


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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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