Cholesterol Results 2014

So I finally bucked up and got my cholesterol tested in November and the results were surprising.  First of all, my cholesterol – after a year of reasonably careful eating and a lot more exercise, but no Metamucil or Fish Oil pills – actually moved in the right direction.

Details in a second.

Not only that, my new cardiologist (again, more in a sec on why I needed to finally see a cardiologist) actually called my cholesterol results “enviable.”

Enviable, people.

This shocked me. Especially because I gave up on the fish oil pills which apparently now, in a total turnaround from past belief, don’t help much with cholesterol. (It’s frustratingly difficult to keep up with what’s recommended –  and what is no long considered effective – for managing cholesterol without statins.)

That said, in the face of a genetic predisposition toward high cholesterol, I’ve managed through diet and exercise to avoid cholesterol medication.  Though truth be told, that’s more likely due to the American Heart Association’s 2013 revised Guidelines For Managing Blood Cholesterol than anything I’ve done… if the Guidelines hadn’t been revised, I’d probably still be having the statin conversation with my doctor.

In any case, here are my exciting (ha ha) cholesterol results.

My overall cholesterol is UP and now measures 246 – which used to be considered high but is apparently now not so big a deal.  Not a big deal, I guess, because my LDL (bad) cholesterol keeps falling (“goal” is less than 130 and mine is now 123) and my HDL (good) cholesterol keeps rising (“goal” is higher than 46 and mine shot up to 95).

NOTE: I put “goal” in quotes because these goals are no longer really in line with the new Guidelines; I find it fascinating that they are still reported as “goal” when the only goal according to the new guidelines is LDL (bad) cholesterol over 190 along with other heart disease risk factors that have nothing to do with cholesterol results.  Bizarre that this is still ‘outdated’ a year later.  Or maybe not bizarre, just sad.

In any case, I’m excited about the results.  Here’s a chart for those who prefer graphs.  If that’s not you, skip to cardiologist discussion 2 paragraphs below!

KLS Chol Trend Thru 2014

You’ll see the red line of total cholesterol is still high and rising – but no one seems worried about that, since the green line of LDL (bad) cholesterol is falling along with the purple triglyceride line … and because the blue line of HDL (good) cholesterol is rising.

Things certainly do change – I’m so glad I never started on a statin back in 2010-2011 when my numbers looked like a statin was in order.

Now, on to cardiologist.  My cholesterol results were surprising – and nicely so. But at same blood test I found I am positive for a blood clotting disorder, so that was a major bummer.  It’s not treated – and not dangerous unless you take hormones (which of course I was) so that had to stop immediately.

And then it turns out my blood pressure has risen quite dramatically.

Likely the stress of this past year – along with wondering and worrying about the blood clotting disorder.  Hence my doctor-referred trip to the cardiologist.

So my new cardiologist and primary care doctor are sorting out how to deal with my (hopefully short-lived) blood pressure issue … and on the plus side, I really liked the new cardiologist.  And when we discussed cardiac risk and my cholesterol trends and family history, he also thought that getting a handle on what my cardiac risk really looks like is a good idea.  So I had two more blood tests – and YAY – these are the very tests I’ve written about thinking made sense for me in Cholesterol Tests Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About.  Finally!

So I had blood tests for both C Reactive Protein (CRP is a measure of inflammation in the body and high levels have been associated with heart disease) and also a full lipid analysis that will measure LDL density, ApoB and more.  I am really relieved to finally be getting a handle on cardiac risk.  Lastly, am debating about getting a Coronary Calcium test done – it’s a CT test so there’s radiation involved (and Aetna denied coverage) so I’ll likely wait until the blood test results come back to decide.

So on plus side, my cholesterol tests are now ‘enviable’ but am waiting for the blood test results to come back and really help hone in on cardiac disease risk. Oh, and trying to figure out how to get my blood pressure back to normal.

So I’ll end 2014 with a question for you: how’s your cholesterol? And, um, blood pressure? If you don’t know, please resolve in 2015 to have them checked.

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Learning About Cholesterol

It’s been rather a long while since I wrote about the importance of finding reputable online resources for learning about cholesterol. You can permanently locate links to educational resources on my Resources/Info Links page, but I thought it might be helpful to discuss in a post.

Why?

Well, quite frankly it’s because when discussing high cholesterol and heart disease risk, many doctors – who speak daily, probably, about cholesterol – rush through the conversation and use unfamiliar terms. On the receiving end it can feel like a tornado rather than a give and take discussion of personal cholesterol results and the resulting medical goals.

Plus, you’re going to google cholesterol anyway, you know you are.

Which is good, actually, because the more you know about cholesterol and heart disease risk – and treatment alternatives — the more committed you are likely to be to your cholesterol management program. Well, maybe. (My commitment waxes and wanes.) At the very least, researching online will enable you to create a list of questions to ask your doctor at a follow up appointment.

And researching should help you question whether prescription medication is absolutely necessary for your personal cholesterol management plan. Which is a vital step many seem to skip.

Truth be told, cholesterol-lowering statin medication is absolutely justified for many, many people – and these meds have undoubtedly saved many lives. But if high cholesterol is your only risk factor, you should question the validity of statin meds for you individual case. Have a discussion about the pros and cons with your doctor. And to do that well, you need knowledge.

But you don’t want to search just anywhere on the web. Some sites – such as WedMD — are largely funded by big pharmaceutical companies so you’ll want to know their slant. To help ensure you are gleaning information from reputable, unbiased sites, here are a few to check out.

An excellent source is the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) which I recently wrote about in my post, September is National Cholesterol Education Month. This site has a great deal of useful information, though it’s layout makes it difficult to navigate. See my post for specific links to the useful sections of this site – including an online calculator for heart disease risk.

For an excellent overview about cholesterol, a visit to the American Heart Association – Cholesterol Overview site is a great place to start. This site explains that cholesterol itself is not ‘bad’ and that it is created both by our bodies and from the foods we eat. Scrolling through this article you’ll find an explanation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, and there’s even an animation if you really want to get a visual of what cholesterol is and how it works in your body.

The Mayo Clinic is one of my favorite sites for unbiased, well-explained information about cholesterol and heart disease risk. (Go ahead. Color me geeky.) It is vital to truly understand your personal heart disease risk; the Mayo Clinic’s High Cholesterol Risk Factors page explains that there are seven conditions which, when combined with high cholesterol, elevate heart disease risk.

Test results are a big factor in risk assessment, and it’s pretty likely that your doctor zoomed through your personal lipid panel test results and what they mean. To learn more about why the goal for ‘total cholesterol’ is at or under 200 mg/dL, what triglycerides are, and what those HDL and LDL numbers really mean, visit the Mayo Clinic’s incredibly useful High Cholesterol Tests and Diagnosis page. This page is an excellent reference that explains the targets for each key cholesterol measure – and relates them to heart disease risk level. In my humble opinion, this page is one of the most useful online resources available.

Finally, if you want to avoid statin medication by lowering cholesterol through diet and lifestyle, you’ll want a good nutritional resource. For that, the Cleveland Clinic’s Nutrition-Cholesterol Guidelines is a terrific resource that explains what’s good and bad about things like the different kinds of fats, dietary cholesterol, protein, carbohydrates, and plant sterols. Even better, it gives a daily target for each. Best of all (major geek alert), there’s a handy chart that summarizes the key info all in one place. Make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page to see this useful chart.

And OK, I lied a minute ago. In my humble opinion, the Cleveland Clinic’s nutrition-cholesterol guidelines page is one of the most useful online resources available.

Let’s make it a tie. I vote that the Mayo Clinic’s High Cholesterol Tests and Diagnosis page wins for explaining test results and targets, and the Cleveland Clinic’s Nutrition-Cholesterol Guidelines page wins for showing how to combat high cholesterol, nutrition-wise.

Beyond these there are, of course, many other great online sources for information about cholesterol and heart disease risk. And your doctor is potentially the best resource of all. That said, the more you know, the better questions you can ask your doctor — and that will go a long way to ensure the program you and your doctor devise is the best possible course for you.

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Cholesterol Tests Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About

A standard cholesterol lipid panel  provides four measures: Total Cholesterol, LDL Cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol and Triglycerides.  But did you know that there are two other blood tests — and one ratio that’s easy to calculate — that can better predict your risk of heart disease?  Which means that even with high cholesterol, you might not need a statin medication if these tests show low cardiac disease risk.

Or you might think you don’t need a statin … and in fact do.

And yet, your doctor probably has not told you about these tests.  So let me.

Apolipoprotein B – or as it’s commonly referred to, ApoB, is a simple blood test that measures the number and size of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Why this test is useful is well explained by Johns Hopkins Health Alerts:

“The problem with using LDL cholesterol levels to determine heart attack risk is that the test measures only the amount of cholesterol in the LDL cholesterol particles, not the number or size of these particles. Apo B measurements, on the other hand, provide information on the number of LDL cholesterol particles.

For example, people with a higher apo B value than LDL cholesterol value tend to have smaller, denser LDL cholesterol particles. Studies have shown that small, dense LDL cholesterol particles are more strongly associated with heart attack risk than large, “fluffy” LDL cholesterol particles.”

So if you have high LDL cholesterol (goal is under 130), you might want to find out if you have the ‘fluffy’ kind of LDL (pattern A), or the more dangerous, small, dense type of LDL (pattern B). Indeed, the Johns Hopkins Health Alert goes on to explain, “Research published in The Lancet reviewed five studies of LDL cholesterol and ApoB in nearly 200,000 people. The researchers concluded that high levels of ApoB were more strongly linked with future heart attack risk than LDL cholesterol levels.”  Compelling, no?

Low Density Particle Number, or LDL-P, is a similar measure – and again, one that’s been shown to be a more accurate predictor of heart disease than the typical cholesterol measurements.  LDL-P measures the number of LDL particles in the blood, whereas LDL is just the total LDL cholesterol.

As explained in The Difference Between LDL-C and LDL-P on the Primal Docs website, two people with the same LDL numbers can have vastly different heart disease risk because one has low LDL-P (fewer LDL particles of the type A, big, fluffy kind) while the other has high LDL-P, or a lot of LDL particles, of the small, dense, type B kind:

“…one person (person A) may have large cholesterol rich LDL particles, while another (person B) may have smaller cholesterol depleted particles. These two persons may have the same LDL-C concentration. However, person B will have higher LDL particle number (LDL-P). Despite similar levels of LDL-C, person B is at higher risk four future cardiovascular events. Furthermore, person B will have more small LDL-particles.”

The doctor who wrote this explanation of LDL-C vs. LDL-P goes on to explain that both LDL-P and ApoB are stronger predictors of heart disease risk than typical cholesterol measures:

“Some studies have suggested that the size of LDL-particles may be of importance. People whose LDL particles are predominantly small and dense, have a threefold greater risk of coronary heart disease.

ApoB and LDL-P both reflect the number of atherogenic lipoprotein particles. Measurements of ApoB and LDL-P are better predictors of cardiovascular disease risk than LDL-C. Furthermore, ApoB and LDL-P may predict residual risk among individuals who have had their LDL-C levels lowered by statin therapy.”

Non-HDL Cholesterol is a third important measure — and you don’t even need to take a blood test. Non-HDL-C is simply your Total Cholesterol minus HDL Cholesterol.  The tricky part is figuring out goal: if your LDL cholesterol is “at goal” you can roughly estimate your non-HDL-C goal by simply adding 30 to your LDL goal (these goals are usually on the cholesterol report – they are also online or you can ask your doctor.) And if it’s not at goal, discuss this ratio with your doctor.  I wrote about non-HDL-C and how to calculate it in this blog post, Do You Know Your Non-HDL Cholesterol?

While researching these in-depth cholesterol tests, I came across this compelling medical case study. It socked me in the gut, as this woman’s lipid panel cholesterol results were similar to mine, and yet it turns out from the additional LDL-P and ApoB testing that she was at high risk for cardiac disease. And needed statins.

Gulp.

So how do you get these tests?

I asked my internist about them months ago, and she said I didn’t need them — that my cholesterol numbers are fine. But now that I’ve read this case study I feel I would love more information.  I’ll have to ask her again about additional testing – especially now that I have more info.

And just so you know, you don’t have to travel to the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic or Berkeley, California to get these tests. The Johns Hopkins Health Report explains,

“One widely used test, called the NMR LipoProfile, analyzes the size of lipoprotein particles in the blood by measuring their magnetic properties. Several others, including the LipoPrint and the Berkeley (from Berkeley HeartLab) use electrical fields to distinguish the size and other attributes of lipoprotein particles. Still another, known as the VAP (for Vertical Auto Profile) test, separates lipoprotein particles using a highspeed centrifuge.”

Even though my cholesterol is at goal, I’ve got to put in a call to my internist to ask about getting both the LDL-P and ApoB testing done. Will keep you posted.

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Cholesterol Results – Static, No Statins

Bless me, doctor, for I have sinned.  It’s been 11 months since my last cholesterol test. (Sorry, could not resist putting this in Catholic confessional format!)

So, I finally worked up the courage to have my cholesterol tested a few weeks ago and the news is – well – fine.  Not great.  No movement in the right direction.  Indeed, some movement in the wrong direction. BUT the following magic words were uttered by my doctor, “We can keep monitoring – no need to start you on statins.”

She didn’t say ‘yet’ but I know she was thinking it.

Some of my friends/blog readers have been asking me to report actual results.  I’ve hesitated because I’m not sure the actual numbers are relevant.  But maybe it would be helpful to share – so geek that I am, I graphed my cholesterol test results.

 

Not a graph geek?  Prefer words to numbers and line charts?  Here’s a summary:

The February 2002 and August 2008 were ‘baseline’ results from regular physicals. Following the red line, you can see the 228 and 211 total cholesterol levels that are a result of my family history of high cholesterol. Sigh.

The big spike up in August 2010 – total cholesterol of 267 and a big bump up in LDL (bad) cholesterol – were alarming.  Indeed, that was the impetus for starting this blog to learn more about cholesterol and manage it via diet and exercise to stay off statins.

The last three data points – March 2011, November 2011 and October 2012 show that my blog/focus on diet and exercise to keep my cholesterol in check have been relatively successful. Since starting the blog, here’s what’s happened:

  • Total Cholesterol in 2011 was down at the 225 range, which is decent for me.  But my latest 239 number reflects my faltering discipline in recent months. Probably I’ll never meet ‘goal’ of  under 200, but clearly I did better in 2011…gotta’ get focus back.
  • Triglyceride level is stubbornly hovering above the 130 goal. As explained in Do You Know Your Non-HDL Cholesterol, I need to cut starches and impose a limit of 1 glass of wine per night.  This is proving to be my Waterloo.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol is increasing, which is good.  This can be counter-intutitive… so think of H for HDL – and that you want this number to be HIGH.
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol went up to 138, which is not good.  (Think of L for LDL – and that you want this number to be LOW.) As I stopped taking Metamucil and fish oil pills in recent months, I need to get back on the right eating/exercising track and see what happens.

So that’s where things stand.  Not a lot of change, but one amazing result: no Lipitor for me. Sorry Pfizer, but goal met.  Woot.

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Do you know your non-HDL cholesterol?

Reviewing my latest cholesterol test results with my doctor last week, she bandied about a term I’d never before heard: non-HDL cholesterol.

Here is how Discovery Fit & Health describes non-HDL cholesterol (which is VITAL to understand if you have diabetes or other cardiovascular disease risk factors). Unless you’re a doctor, don’t get too fussed about the jargon – I kept it here for those who like all the details.  If that’s not you, just skim over the jargon and keep reading and it should all make sense:

“Non-HDL cholesterol is the total of VLDL and LDL cholesterol, both of which contain atherogenic apolipoprotein B (apo B) particles. Because it approximates the amount of apo B particles, non-HDL cholesterol is a better predictor of the risk of coronary heart disease than a simple measure of LDL cholesterol.

It’s a useful measurement in people with triglyceride levels between 200 mg/dL and 500 mg/dL who likely have substantially more apo B particles.

To calculate non-HDL cholesterol, subtract HDL cholesterol from the total cholesterol. When LDL cholesterol is at goal, non-HDL cholesterol should be lowered to 30 mg/dL greater than the LDL-cholesterol goal.”

Why do I care about this? Why should you? Well, if you have high triglycerides or diabetes or other cardiovascular disease risks, it appears that non-HDL cholesterol is a better predictor of heart disease than total cholesterol or LDL or HDL levels.

Said differently, non-HDL cholesterol appears to be a good way to decide if you need more tests or more aggressive treatment. I’ve been worried I need more tests (and I might) but for now, I felt better after understanding my non-HDL cholesterol level.

It’s easy to calculate. You don’t need a new lab test – just your latest fasting cholesterol test results and a pad/paper…ok, calculator. Here’s what you do:

  1. Calculate your own non-HDL cholesterol by subtracting HDL from your total cholesterol number. Mine was 168: my total cholesterol of 224 minus my 56 HDL.
  2. To calcualte your GOAL for non-HDL cholesterol, just add 30 to your LDL goal. (Your doctor should give you a goal – or you can see it on your lab report.  OR you can figure it out on the Mayo Clinic or American Heart Association sites.) My LDL goal is <130 so my non-HDL cholesterol goal is 160.
  3. Compare — and discuss with your doctor. My non-HDL cholesterol is 168 vs 160 goal (though my doctor calculated my goal as 190 – she started with an LDL goal of 160 not 130 – I need to call her about that.) So I’m either well below 190 goal or slightly above 160 goal.

So my next steps based on all this? Besides following up on that pesky 160 vs 190:

  • Continue going lo-co lifestyle. My doctor asked what I’m doing other than blogging (ha ha) as it IS slowly bringing my cholesterol numbers down. Thus, we agreed that I should continue my (mostly) low-fat/low cholesterol diet, ramped up exercise, and daily doses of both fish oil and Metamucil.
  • Sadly, she wants me to add 2 things to lower my triglycerides: cut starches and impose a limit of 1 glass of wine per night.  UGH. We’ll see about that.
  • Regarding more testing – since all my cousins are on cholesterol meds, she wants me to poll them – find out about their coronary calcium scores, if they had them done. If they are high, she’ll want to send me for more testing. If not, no need.

One last thought – if you have prior test results, it’d be good to do your own non-HDL cholesterol calculation before you meet with your doctor.  It’s a lot of numbers and my doc whipped through this so quickly I didn’t have time to notice – much less ask about – the fact that she listed my LDL goal as 160 but the lab results chart said it was 130. If I’d known about this calculation ahead of time, I’d like to think I’d have caught it and asked.

Hope this is helpful – it was total news to me. Drop me an email or post a comment if you want any further info on non-HDL cholesterol.

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