December 17, 2019

Cholesterol – A Silent Killer: Don’t Let High Cholesterol Steal Your Vitality

two women hiking with hiking sticksBy Stephen Kimmel, MD, Blue Ridge Medical Center – Yancey Campus

One of my favorite professors from medical school started a lecture by walking to the center of the stage without any notes, staring out into the class and saying dramatically, “I know how you are going to die!”

It was an engaging start to a lecture about heart disease and cancer. In the US, we are fortunate in that most of us have enough to eat, clean water and protection from the elements. Thus, the two most common causes of death for Americans are heart disease and cancer; stroke comes in at No. 5. Cholesterol is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, and cholesterol is something we have more control of than we may realize.

Is cholesterol good or bad?

Cholesterol is an organic molecule (something made of atoms held together by bonds). It is one of the components of cell walls, so it’s one of the building blocks of life. Cholesterol is absolutely essential to life. However, if levels of it are too high in the blood, they can deposit in clumps (it is a building block after all) on the sides of the blood vessels. Blood vessels are pipes, and like any pipe with debris, in it a blockage causes narrowing and decreased (blood) flow. When blood flow is critically low in the heart, we call that a heart attack. When blood flow is critically low in the brain, we call that a stroke.

“Having high cholesterol is not something that anyone feels – it is one of the ‘silent killers.’”

Strokes and heart attacks steal vitality, making it harder for people to live to their full potential. The heart is the body’s engine. It supplies the rest of the body with nutrients and takes away waste. The brain makes sense of the world, it is what makes you who you are. Simply knowing your cholesterol could make a big impact on your life.

Having your cholesterol checked is the only way to know if your cholesterol is too high.

Doctors routinely order this blood test at wellness visits, or if you have had a medical problem that is associated with high cholesterol.

Having high cholesterol is not something that anyone feels – it is one of the “silent killers.” We have medicines to lower cholesterol levels, and some of these medications have been demonstrated (by giving them to large numbers of people) to reduce people’s risk of having heart attacks or strokes.

The buildup of cholesterol in blood vessels is cumulative over a lifetime. Sometimes we give cholesterol-lowering medications to younger people, who are not at a high risk of heart attack or stroke, to prevent them from having a complication associated with high cholesterol. We can also help manage our cholesterol through diet and eating – learn more about the relationship between food and cholesterol.

Preventative medicine is not about just helping people live longer, but helping people live lives marked by increased vitality. Consider talking to your doctor about your cholesterol.

Stephen Kimmel, MD, is a physician at Blue Ridge Medical Center – Yancey Campus. Learn more.