The Highs and Lows of Cholesterol

Of all the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, high blood cholesterol takes the cake. Even the slightest elevation of certain types of cholesterol can put blood vessels at risk for dangerous and sometimes deadly narrowing. It is estimated that 8% of Americans have no idea they have a cholesterol problem; they are a ticking time bomb because a heart attack or stroke may already be in the works. Learn the numbers that tell you where you stand.

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Of all the substances in the human body, cholesterol is one of the most critical to human existence. One hundred years of research has been dedicated to this ubiquitous compound. It is found in the membrane of every human cell, it protects our nerves and it is necessary for the manufacture of vital hormones, vitamins and substances that aid digestion. It would probably be the end of the story if it weren't for one problem – it can also kill.

News of cholesterol's dark side surfaced at the beginning of the 1900s when a German chemist Adolph Windaus discovered that the concentrations of this fatty substance were 20 times higher in narrowed aortas – the largest artery in the body – than in non-narrowed vessels. Decades later it was clear that cholesterol could also collect inside vessels supplying the heart and brain. Today the link between blood cholesterol, heart attack and stroke is undeniable, and the medical community has been keenly obsessed with finding ways to straighten cholesterol levels ever since.

Measuring cholesterol in the blood can help predict who is more likely to have a fatal event. The numbers are so important doctors urge patients to treat them as one of the body's security codes. Because along with reducing obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking, normalizing one’s cholesterol can be the difference between life and death.

 

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is used to make steroid hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. It's needed to make bile salts, a necessary component for digestion of fats, and it allows liquids and gases to go in and out of a cell's membrane. It also helps make vitamin D.

There are 2 sources of cholesterol, the cholesterol you make and the cholesterol you eat. The body produces about 75% of cholesterol, mostly in the liver. The rest comes from food.