Cholesterol and Heart Disease in Women

bowl of oatmeal with blueberries and raspberries

Are you diligent about getting your cholesterol checked? Many women aren’t, and it’s because they think they don’t have to.

Take Kimberly Montgomery, for example. She was always a glass half full kind of woman, and her refusal to see things negatively placed her at a huge advantage – until it almost cost her her life.

Kimberly suffered a heart attack. She hadn’t been paying attention to her cholesterol numbers despite her family history of heart disease. “I just never considered that I could get heart disease,” she says. “I saw my doctor regularly and had great results at my company wellness screenings each year.”

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the blood and in all the body’s cells. When it builds in the inner walls of your arteries over time, it hardens and turns into plaque. That plaque can narrow the artery walls and reduce blood flow, which you guessed it, can cause blocks that can lead to blood clots, heart attacks or strokes.

You might be surprised to learn that your body actually needs cholesterol to function normally and to stay healthy. But what we need to remember is that our bodies are fully capable of making all the cholesterol it needs. It’s what you put into your body (yes, we mean those salty snacks and baked goods), and in some cases your family health history that causes trouble.

It’s also important to note that all cholesterol isn’t created equally. There are two types: good and bad. And understanding the difference and knowing the levels of each in your blood is critical. Too much of one type, or not enough of another, can put you at risk.

Cholesterol types

  • LDL (bad) cholesterol: This is the type that, when too much is present in the blood stream, can clog your arteries and put you at risk for a heart attack or stroke. It’s produced naturally by the body, but is also inherited from your parents or even grandparents, and can cause you to create too much. Eating a diet high in saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol also increases how much you have.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol: It is believed by some experts that high levels of this type of cholesterol removes excess plaque from your arteries, slowing its buildup and helping to protect against a heart attack. Low levels, however, can actually increase your risk.
  • Triglycerides: This is a form of fat made in the body. If you have an inactive lifestyle, a diet high in carbohydrates, smoke, are obese or drink too much alcohol, it can raise total cholesterol levels, and lead to high LDL and low HDL levels.

Putting an end to bad cholesterol

Previously, treatment guidelines directed healthcare providers to focus on treating their patients to target goal levels for total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. However, current prevention guidelines suggest more is needed. Your specific numbers are still important, but the best treatment considers your specific numbers and your overall risk assessment and reduction opportunities. Working with your healthcare provider to customize the approach to treat your risk will achieve better results.

Your heart is in your hands. And heart disease is largely preventable if you work to lower your risks. So get on the horn and schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider to learn what numbers you’re dealing with so you can lower them if you need to. Don’t wait to discover it after a heart attack strikes – Kimberly’s story is proof of that.

Now fully recovered, Kimberly does cardio every day and has adjusted her diet to be low in cholesterol and sodium. She’s also working hard to pass these healthy habits onto those around her.

“Women, in particular, need to be reminded to take care of our bodies an pay attention when something isn’t right,” she says. “We tend to focus so much on how everyone around us is feeling that we forget about ourselves.”

Learn more about cholesterol and about the prevention and treatment of high cholesterol.