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Jargon buster: What do I need to know about cholesterol?

Cardiovascular disease – including heart disease and strokes – results in the death of 10,000 Irish people every year, making it one of the leading causes of death in the country. 

Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to heart health, so we can all take positive steps to make sure we’re keeping ourselves at the least risk possible. That’s where cholesterol comes in.  

So, what is cholesterol exactly?

Simply put, cholesterol is a type of fat found in the blood. We all need a certain amount to help produce vital substances such as hormones, cell membranes and bile acids – but too much of it, and it sticks to your artery walls to form plaque. This plaque may build up and cause a blockage.  

However, there are “good” and “bad” types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol carries cholesterol away from cells back to the liver, where it’s broken down. High levels of it are positive, so it’s the “good” type. LDL cholesterol is the type that will build up on your arteries if too much is produced. Lower levels of it are optimal, so it’s referred to as the “bad” type.  

And what happens if my cholesterol is too high? 

When LDL cholesterol is too high in the blood, the excess will build up on artery walls. This restricts blood flow around the body. Heart attacks are caused by heart muscles being damaged due to blockages, whereas a similar event in an artery to the brain is what we call a stroke.  

How will I know if my cholesterol levels are too high?

Aside from major events such as a heart attack or stroke, there is no way to know if you have high cholesterol without getting tested. This is done with a simple blood test, which can be carried out by a GP or nurse.  

Who is most at risk of high cholesterol? 

Anyone can have their cholesterol tested, but there are certain types of people who may be more at risk of having high levels in their blood. These include:

 ● The over 40s

● Overweight or obese people

● People with high blood pressure 

● Diabetics 

● Those with a close family member affected 

● A family history of early cardiovascular disease (pre 55 for men, pre 65 for women) 

What foods affect my cholesterol levels? Once your doctor has diagnosed you with high cholesterol levels, the first port of call is usually dietary recommendations in order to reduce saturated fat intake. Those with high cholesterol are advised by the Irish Heart Foundation to cut down or eliminate the following foods that are rich in saturated fat:  

● Fatty cuts of meat

● Lard and butter

● Cheese, cream and ice cream

● Chocolate, cake and biscuits

● Coconut oil 

● Products containing palm oil (check labels) 

As for what else you can do? Quit smoking, eat fish twice a week (particularly oily fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel), get physically active, cut down on alcohol and try to reduce the stress in your life. Book in for a chat with your GP if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels or heart health.  

We’ve got lots more articles on maintaining a healthy heart. Read some more today over on our Health Hub blog.