That Old Chestnut
Shoot me down in flames on this one, but when you’re younger (and we at T-Resource can just about remember that,) cholesterol can sometimes seem a bit like your pension fund.
Sure it’s important, and it’s presumably something you should be thinking about – but isn’t it really only something you need to worry about later down the line?
The perception may be associative. Residents of the UK and Australia will doubtless be familiar with the margarine spread Flora Pro-Active (marketed under the Promise brand in the US.) For many years now, both brands have touted their cholesterol-reducing properties on TV ads using a series of retired or otherwise middle aged ‘customers.’
In the US, commercials for the cholesterol lowering medication Lipidor routinely feature the testimony of a similarly advanced demographic.
Whether these silver haired salesmen really ‘tried and were surprised’ by these products or not, the implied message is unmistakable – high cholesterol is something that happens to older people.
The fact is, though, that this simply isn’t the case. The American Heart Association advises that cholesterol levels can start to rise from our early twenties onwards, with men especially at risk.
Although Doctors recommend getting tested every four to six years, many may want to keep up to date on their levels more regularly – which is where home testing kits come in.
Before we dive into that though, let’s quickly examine what cholesterol actually is, and why too much of it could be bad for us.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is essential to all animals. A vital component of our cell membrane, it is necessary for the production of a number of hormones, including estrogen, vitamin D, and, last but not least, testosterone.
Also produced in our livers in order to digest and absorb fat, cholesterol is carried around the bloodstream by biochemical substances called lipoproteins. These are vital to understanding the potential downside of cholesterol.
Lipoproteins come in two types – High Density (HDL) and Low Density (LDL.)
The high density lipoproteins (HDL) transfer cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver. Higher levels of this kind of lipoprotein are considered desirable, and are associated with ‘good cholesterol.’
Low density lipoproteins (LPL) perform the opposite task, carrying cholesterol around the body from the liver. Too much in the bloodstream though can clog the blood vessels and cause atherosclerosis, a cause of heart disease and stroke.
As you might imagine, a build up of LPL is associated with ‘bad cholesterol.’
Designed to be used between appointments with your Doctor, cholesterol home test kits are increasingly available over the counter at pharmacies. They generally retail at under $20.
The kits contain a lancet (a type of needle that draws and holds blood,) and test strips. After a small drop of blood has been withdrawn, it is placed on the strip. This will change color according to the level of cholesterol present.
Some kits now come with an electronic meter, which calculates the cholesterol from the strip, but most use a simple color chart to determine cholesterol levels.
Are They Reliable?
Response to home cholesterol tests has been mixed at best. Some are confident that they can provide results with an accuracy comparable with the tests doctors and other healthcare providers conduct. Lots of kits are marketed as being better than 95% accurate.
Better than 95% isn’t half bad, but it might still be considered an estimate; and some research has pointed towards a significant disparity between home test results and those overseen by professionals.
On top of this, it should be remembered that even given consistently low readings at home, your Doctor will consider various other factors when making a health assessment relative to cholesterol count. This might including your age, your weight, and your family medical history.
Also, to get a proper picture of your cholestorol (lipid) health, you’d really want the full breakdown – Triglycerides, Total Cholestotrol, HDL, and LDL. If the DIY Cholestorol test kit doesn’t provide this you might be better looking at an online test. These are only slightly more expensive that a DIY kit, but are considerably more accurate as they are done at a proper laboratory.
Long story short, although there is no harm in testing your own cholesterol levels at home, it should never form a replacement for regular check ups at your surgery.
If you are interested in home tests between appointments, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) runs a database of all over-the-counter kits that it approves. It can be found on their website.
Other Top Tips
Of course, a healthy diet and sensible exercise regime should ensure that we have the right ratio of ‘good’ HDL to ‘bad’ LDL lipoproteins, whichever way we count them. Research indicates that both regular aerobic activity and weight training can lower cholesterol, as can yoga.
On the diet front, oats, almonds, and soy products are all considered effective in reducing cholesterol in various ways. Cutting foods high in saturated fat, like cheese and whole milk, is also advisable.
And let’s not forget plant sterols, found packed in enriched margarine spreads like Flora Pro-Active, and proven to lower cholesterol however old you are.
Which might be just as well – according to NYU Langone Medical Centre’s Dr. Eugenia Ganios, we’d be better off considering our cholesterol levels sooner rather than later:
In other words, let’s just hope Gramps has left some of that spread for us!
If diet and lifestyle improvements are not able to reduce your LPL and Triglyceride levels you may end up getting prescribed Statins by your doctor. These include brand names such as;
- Fluvastatin (Lescol)
- Pitavastatin (Livalo)
- Pravastatin (Pravachol)
- Rosuvastatin (Crestor)
- Simvastatin (Zocor)
Studies have demonstrated that they can reduce the likelihood of a cardiovascular event, but they are not without their side effects. Which include intestinal problem and muscle inflammation, as well a slight increase in the chance of developing type 2 diabetes.