Why High Cholesterol Increases Heart Disease Risk

In my role as cholesterol “Category Expert” for www.answers.com, I recently answered a question sent in by an Answers reader that I was surprised to find I’d never expressly addressed here on my blog:  “Why does high cholesterol lead to heart disease?”

Here’s the answer I posted: you can read it on this page of wiki.answers.com, or I’ve pasted it here as well:

Once you look at the definition of cholesterol, it’s easy to see why high cholesterol can cause heart disease.

The National Institute of Health defines cholesterol as, “a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body.” Cholesterol in and of itself is not bad – in fact, your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones and vitamin D, and your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. But sometimes genetics and/or eating high fat foods and not getting enough exercise results in overly high cholesterol levels. 

When you have more cholesterol than your body needs, the waxy, excess cholesterol can build up and stick to the artery walls – that’s called plaque. When plaque forms, there is a significant increase in risk of two heart disease problems — stroke and heart attack — because plaque can break open and cause a blood clot. A stroke happens when a blood clot blocks an artery that feeds the brain. A heart attack is the result when plaque or a blood clot blocks an artery that feeds the heart.

So while having high cholesterol alone used to be cause for treatment to stave off heart disease, as of the new November 2013 guidelines, now high cholesterol by itself is not THE big risk factor. Rather, the latest treatment standard is to factor high cholesterol in with other heart disease risk factors to determine overall risk of stroke and heart attack.

 

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Cholesterol Treatment – Guidelines Pocket Cards for Doctors

Did you know that any old person (and by ‘any old’ I mean a regular, non-doctor person, not any OLD person!) can purchase the American Heart Association’s “guidelines pocket cards” meant to keep doctors up to date on latest treatment protocols/recommendations?

On the American Heart Association website, these pocket cards are described as:

“These quick reference tools provide instant access to current AHA/ASA and ACCF/AHA guidelines in a clear, concise format – available in print and in the Guideline Central Mobile app for iPhone, iPad and Android.”

AHAlogo_lifeiswhy-logoFor months, I have been wondering whether there have been any updates or changes to the November 2013 Cholesterol Guidelines – and how doctors are following – or not – the new guidelines. (More info about the 2013 guidelines here: The NEW guidelines for cholesterol-lowering statin meds).

To me, there’s been a startling dearth of information about how treatment of high cholesterol has changed – or not – since these guidelines were issued. So I was pleased to stumble upon these pocket guidelines for doctors – updated with the latest recommendations.  For just $8.99 I downloaded the cholesterol pocket guidelines and found them largely unchanged since the new guidelines were issued in November 2013.

Which is good, I guess.

That said, one new thing I learned from this pocket guide is that there are established goals for the more in-depth cholesterol tests like C-Reactive Protein and Coronary Artery Calcium – both tests I think I might benefit from.

While my $8.99 purchase would NOT let me print (grr), I was able to grab some text via the handy iPhone app. Love that.

So if you would like a peak at the ‘pocket guidelines’ your doctor may well use when considering how to treat your high cholesterol, read on. Fair warning: it’s, um, quite detailed and uses acronyms (it is, after all, for doctors) so I’ve included a simple glossary for some of the medical terms.

Here goes – what follows is the ‘key points’ section of the doctor ‘pocket guide’ for treating high cholesterol:

TITLE: Cholesterol Adult Management

KEY POINTS

  • Encourage adherence to a heart-healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet, regular aerobic physical activity, smoking cessation and maintenance of a healthy weight are critical components of ASCVD risk reduction. Control hypertension and diabetes, when present.
  • Statin therapy is recommended for adults in groups demonstrated to benefit. ASCVD risk reduction clearly outweighs the risk of adverse events based on a strong body of evidence in 4 groups:
    • Secondary prevention in individuals with clinical ASCVD
    • Primary prevention in individuals age ≥ 21 years with primary elevations of LDL-C ≥ 190 mg/dL
    • Primary prevention in individuals with diabetes 40 to 75 years of age who have LDL-C 70 to 189 mg/dL
    • Primary prevention in individual without diabetes and with estimated 10-year ASCVD risk ≥ 7.5%, 40 to 75 years of age who have LDL-C 70 to 189 mg/dL
  • Statins have an acceptable margin of safety when used in properly selected individuals and appropriately monitored. If no baseline abnormality, monitoring of hepatic transaminases is not routinely needed. CK should not be routinely measured unless there is a personal or family history of muscle problems. You may need to discontinue and then restart the statin to determine the cause of muscle symptoms.
  • Engage in a clinician-patient discussion before initiating statin therapy, especially for primary prevention. Discuss the potential for ASCVD event reduction, adverse effects, drug–drug interactions, and patient preferences. Additional factors may be considered when a risk-based decision is uncertain.
    • These include LDL-C ≥ 160 mg/dL, family history of premature ASCVD, hs-CRP ≥ 2.0 mg/L, CAC ≥ 300 Agatson units, ABI < 0.9; lifetime risk of ASCVD.
  • Use the newly developed Pooled Cohort Equations for estimating 10-year ASCVD risk. Calculating the estimated 10-year ASCVD risk should be the start of the clinician-patient discussion and should not automatically lead to statin initiation.
    • For other ethnic groups, use the equations for non-Hispanic whites, although these estimates may underestimate the risk for persons from some race/ethnic groups, especially American Indians, some Asian Americans (e.g., of south Asian ancestry), and some Hispanics (e.g., Puerto Ricans), and may overestimate the risk for others, including some Asian Americans (e.g., of east Asian ancestry) and some Hispanics (e.g., Mexican Americans).
  • Initiate the appropriate intensity of statin therapy to reduce ASCVD risk.
  • Evidence is inadequate to support treatment to specific LDL-C or non–HDL-C treatment goals. “Treating to goal” may result in treatment with less-than-optimum statin intensity or adding unproven nonstatin therapy.
  • Regularly monitor patients for adherence to lifestyle and appropriate intensity of statin therapy. Obtain a fasting lipid panel before and after initiating statin or other drug therapy.
  • Nonstatin drug therapy may be considered in selected individuals.”

Going Lo-Co GLOSSARY:

  • ASCVD -atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Statin Therapy – treatment with statin drugs, like Lipitor
  • Individuals with clinical ASCVD  – people with cardiovascular disease or who have had a ‘cardiac event’ like a heart attack
  • LDL-C – level of LDL cholesterol in the blood
  • 10 year ASCVD risk – risk of a cardiac event in 10 years, as measured by the calculator issued with the November 2013 guidelines.  More here: Going LoCo Calculator Post
  • hs-CRP – measure of “C-Reactive Protein” which is a marker for inflammation
  • CAC – coronary artery calcium which measures the thickness of fatty accumulation in the arteries and is used to predict heart disease risk

While managing cholesterol down to a specific goal is no longer the treatment standard, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be tracking your cholesterol and managing non-dangerous/risky high cholesterol with lifestyle choices. And remember, if your LDL cholesterol is at/over 190 mg/dL or you have other risks, discuss a statin with your doctor.

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Answers Q&A

As you may know, as “cholesterol expert” I’ve written many articles for Answers.com, which you can find in two places. First, on the cholesterol page of the Answers.com site. Also I have all the articles listed by title on the “Answers.com Published Articles” page on this Going Lo-Co site.

And now, new news…

This week, Answers.com added a new page to their site: a Q&A with me.  Of course, if you have cholesterol questions, you can always email me/comment right here on the Going Lo-Co site. But now you can also ask me a question (but not, of course, for medical advice!) on the all new www.answers.com/karenswanson site.

Just mentioning…

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Do You Have FH?

The cholesterol-watching world is filled to the brim with acronyms and easily confused verbiage.  Who can remember what LDL and HDL stand for – much less which is the good and which is the bad cholesterol?  And then there’s Apo-B and LDL particle size to boot. But today I learned one that was total news to me: FH.

Turns out, FH stands for Familial Hypercholesterolemia which, in a nutshell, is very high LDL (bad) cholesterol that is caused by genetics. A more complete definition is given on The FH Foundation website:

FHlogo“FH is short for Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It is an inherited disorder that leads to aggressive and premature cardiovascular disease. This includes problems like heart attacks, strokes, and even narrowing of our heart valves. For individuals with FH, although diet and lifestyle are important, they are not the cause of high LDL. In FH patients, genetic mutations make the liver incapable of metabolizing (or removing) excess LDL. The result is very high LDL levels which can lead to premature cardiovascular disease (CVD).”

I was amazed to find there’s a site – indeed, an entire foundation – dedicated to high cholesterol caused by genetics.  And a bit miffed – because I know my high cholesterol is genetic… so I can’t believe I didn’t know about this very useful source of information.

And it’s important – because FH is a serious condition and essentially requires choleterol-lowering medication or other intervention:

“Nearly 100% of people with FH will require cholesterol-lowering medications. For some people with FH, more aggressive measures are needed, including LDL-apheresis (a very simple procedure in which LDL-C cholesterol is removed from the blood on a weekly or biweekly basis.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that if a family has a pattern of early heart attacks or heart disease defined as before age 55 for men and 65 for women, children in that family should have cholesterol testing after the age of 2 years and before age 10.”

All this very sobering information compelled me to track down the excel spreadsheet I use to track my cholesterol results over time.  I was quite pleased to discover that although my high cholesterol is largely caused by genetics, it does not look like I have FH. In my most recent test, I’d brought my LDL (bad) cholesterol down through diet and exercise to 132 (under 130 was the goal before new guidelines were established).  And according to The FH Foundation website, FH is suspected when untreated LDL is above 190 (or 160 in children).

Whew.  Good news for me on the FH front.

Not so good news for me to ‘discover’ that my last cholesterol test was in March 2013.  Um, more than a year and a half ago.  It seems I have “forgotten” to keep track of my cholesterol levels.  Probably because I spent a lot of time this past year at Shake Shack.

So next week, at my annual ob/gyn appointment, I’ll take the blood test order my doctor always gives me and use it to have my cholesterol tested.

And if you have high LDL cholesterol that has not declined with diet and exercise and/or a family history of early heart disease / heart attacks, consider learning more about FH at The FH Foundation site and discuss with your doctor.

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