While many aspects of our daily lives have been uncertain lately due to the coronavirus pandemic, one thing we can count on is that the seasons are changing and September is here, which means National Cholesterol Education Month. High cholesterol is a major modifiable risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a practicing cardiologist committed to heart disease prevention, I know first-hand that managing high cholesterol is important to help prevent heart disease and stroke.
Education is the cornerstone of prevention. That is especially true for high cholesterol because it is silent. You can’t see or feel it like you can some other risk factors, but high cholesterol can lead to serious cardiovascular risks. It can build up in artery walls, causing them to harden and narrow, restricting the flow of blood. This build-up can eventually block blood supply to the heart or brain, leading to heart attack, stroke and even death. For this reason, all adults over age 20 should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years by their healthcare provider per American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines.
It is critical that men and women are proactive in caring for their heart health. According to a recent analysis by the United Health Foundation, among adults age 20 and older, a higher percentage of women have high total cholesterol than men, and rates are even higher among women age 60 and over compared with men that age. Furthermore, heart disease is the number one killer of women – responsible for more deaths than all cancers combined.
Healthy lifestyle choices can help manage high cholesterol, including diet, exercise, journaling and goal setting. However, for some people, this may not be enough to reach their cholesterol goals. Their healthcare provider may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin, in addition to a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise (at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, or at least 75 minutes of high intensity exercise). Although diet and exercise are always the first steps for managing high cholesterol, cholesterol-lowering medication can be lifesaving.
Unfortunately, more than half of people prescribed a statin stop taking it in the first year, putting them at risk of a heart attack or stroke. Many people are not aware that multiple statin options are available and that statins are not all the same. How someone responds to a statin and the way it is processed in the body can vary from person to person for a variety of reasons, including age, medical history, ethnicity, genetics, metabolism, or other medications or supplements they’re taking.
I believe that everyone needs to be their own advocate when it comes to managing heart health and risk factors for heart disease. You can start by getting the proper information and seeking out resources with responsible information. Additionally, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider, whether in person or via telehealth, if you don’t know your cholesterol level, if you have a family history of heart disease but haven’t had regular cholesterol checks, or are taking a statin and are thinking of stopping it. Now that it’s National Cholesterol Education Month, don’t miss out on the opportunity to prioritize your heart health and better understand how to manage high cholesterol.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum is an attending cardiologist, specializing in prevention. She recently opened a private practice in New York City, at the Juhi-Ash integrative health center, and is the founder and President of SRSHeart, a personalized lifestyle management program. She was formerly the Director of Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health and Wellness at Mt. Sinai Heart in New York City, after being the Director of Women’s Heart Health at Northwell Lenox Hill, an NHA hospital.