Dr. Michael Pecora

Courtesy Washington Health System

Dr. Michael Pecora

Most of us know that cholesterol levels are a good indicator of cardiovascular health and that keeping them under control can keep the heart healthy. However, until recently, young people haven’t worried much about their cholesterol, seeing it as a problem for the middle aged and older. New research suggests that maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout life and starting at a young age will have a greater impact on cholesterol levels. The fact is, nearly one in three American adults have high levels of LDL, often referred to as “the bad cholesterol.”

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance in the blood. It contributes to a fatty buildup and constricting of the arteries, called atherosclerosis. It can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. The American Heart Association and 11 other health organizations updated the cholesterol guidelines to reflect these new findings. Now, the guidelines emphasize the impact that lifestyle choices have on heart health.

Dr. Michael Pecora, MD, is a cardiologist at Washington Health System. He explains that eating healthy, regular exercise and making healthy life choices can help prevent cholesterol problems, even from a young age. So even if you think you’re too young to worry about it, the choices you make in your youth still have a great impact on your cardiovascular health.

Pecora also stresses the importance of having your cholesterol measured throughout life and treating high cholesterol with the aggressive use of statin therapy, which is often a remarkable treatment for cholesterol issues.

“When cholesterol cannot be adequately controlled on statin therapy, the use of additional medical therapy should be considered,” Pecora says.

The new guidelines recommend that doctors give a detailed assessment of a person’s 10-year risk for heart disease and create a personalized plan for reducing this risk. For younger people (ages 20-39) the first line of defense is making lifestyle changes, like eating a low-cholesterol diet and getting plenty of exercise. Attributes that may increase your risk include weight, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes.

For people age 40-75, their risk is assessed as either low, borderline, intermediate or high. Those in the borderline and intermediate range should have a discussion with their doctor about the possibility of taking medication, which can be very effective at lowering their risk. Those who have an elevated risk of high cholesterol may need more aggressive screening and prevention methods. Children as young as 2 may need to be tested if they have a family history of heart disease. The American Heart Association also recommends testing children between the age of 9 and 11 and then again between 17 and 21. Adults over 20 who don’t have a cardiovascular disease should be tested every four to six years. Some people are more prone to high cholesterol, including certain races and ethnicities, and should be monitored more closely.

“To these traditional risk factors, patients should understand that other factors including evidence of cardiovascular disease, family history and inflammation are all considered in the estimate of the patient’s lifetime risk,” Pecora says.

The best advice is to be proactive with your health. Don’t put off talking about heart health with your doctor and getting the necessary testing. High cholesterol is controllable with lifestyle changes and medication.

If you need more information or would like to make an appointment, please call 724-225-6500.

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