Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S.—and while coronary problems are often associated with old age, contributing factors can start much earlier in life. One key cause: high levels of "bad" cholesterol, a.k.a. LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein). Here's how it works: When people eat foods high in cholesterol, and also foods with trans and saturated fats (think something along the lines of white, "waxy" fats), LDL gets absorbed into the blood vessels. All this extra fat can eventually end up in the artery walls, causing heart problems and even a stroke. Here's how to take action now for optimal heart health so you can prevent coronary heart disease later.
KNOWING THE BASICS
Here's a scary fact: A study conducted by GfK Custom Research North America found that almost 75 percent of women ages 18 to 44 didn't know the difference between "good" cholesterol, or HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and LDL. Bad cholesterol can build up in the blood due to eating fatty foods, not exercising enough and/or in response to other health problems, forming plaque in the arteries. On the other hand, the body actually needs HDL to protect the heart and move LDL from the liver and arteries. In men and women, cholesterol can typically be controlled with a healthy diet and exercise—although sometimes prescription drugs are necessary.
It's recommended to get a baseline lipoprotein test in your twenties—which is just a fancy way of saying a blood test to determine your LDL and HDL levels. Many doctors will conduct this test as part of a physical at least every five years and sometimes more often if there are risk factors present. So what are healthy cholesterol levels? Ideally, bad cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. In women, cholesterol levels below 130 mg/dL are still okay—although a doctor will likely recommend diet and exercise changes for any levels above that number. The flip side: With good cholesterol, high levels are better and should be above 50 mg/dL for women.
KNOWING YOUR RISK FACTORS
Believe it or not, women at a healthy weight—or even women who are underweight—can have high LDL levels. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics found that there's a genetic link between bad cholesterol, so women who have a family history of heart disease should make sure to get tested, even if they're slim. For men and women, high cholesterol risk can also increase with diabetes. Not getting enough exercise, eating a high-fat diet and/or being overweight can also contribute to increased LDL levels and up the risk of heart disease. Research has also showed that for women, race may play a factor in heart disease and African American, Native American, and Hispanic women are most susceptible. Pregnancy and breastfeeding may also increase a woman's cholesterol levels, but this is actually natural and shouldn't be cause for alarm in most situations.
EATING A DIET FOR HEART HEALTH
In women, high cholesterol can be attributed to poor diet choices that are bad for overall heart health. So what are smart food choices? Stock up on oatmeal, whole grains, beans, fruits (especially those antioxidant-rich foods, like berries), and vegetables. Think of it this way: The more natural the food and the more fiber it contains, the better. Salmon, almonds, and olive oil are also smart diet options, since they're loaded with healthy fats the body actually needs. In women, high cholesterol can continue to be a problem if a diet is based around fatty meats, processed foods, cheese, butter, eggs, sweets, and more.
A British study out of Brunel University published in the International Journal of Obesity found that "lean exercisers" had healthy, lower levels of LDL than lean non-exercisers. The study also confirmed that cardio exercises such as running and cycling are key components to maintaining higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of bad cholesterol. In fact, a nine-year study published in the August 2009 issue of The Journal of Lipid Research found that for women, high cholesterol could be curbed with an extra hour of physical activity a week.