Are you aware? It’s National Cholesterol Month

Posted on October 6, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature couple eating healthy

To be perfectly honest it is some time since I had my cholesterol levels checked. I have other aspects of my health checked, but for some reason a cholesterol check never seems to make it onto my list of things to do. I admit that this is an oversight on my part that should be corrected, and having spotted that October is National Cholesterol Month I am rethinking my rather cavalier attitude.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol may be described as “a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all cells of the body.” Our body manufactures it because we need it to make hormones, vitamin D and it plays a role in the digestive system. But, it is also found in some of the food that we eat. Ideally, you should have a healthy level of both HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol in your body, because when the LDL level rises above the accepted norm it causes a build up of cholesterol in the arteries, leading to heart disease. There is much more science to it than this, but these are the basic facts, and with so many people in the UK with undiagnosed levels, there is a growing need to raise awareness.

Heart UK, which is ‘the’ cholesterol charity, is leading the campaign across the UK to make all of us more aware of the dangers of high cholesterol and a host of fund-raising activities that will help the work of the charity to continue. If your knowledge of cholesterol is hazy, then Heart UK’s website is an excellent resource where you can discover the basic facts and more about everything to do with cholesterol, including how to recognise the symptoms of raised cholesterol, dietary advice and details about Inherited Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (FH), which is something I knew little about until I read about it at Heart UK.

What is FH?

According to Heart UK, some 80-90% of FH cases remain undiagnosed. It is an inherited condition that leads to excessively high cholesterol levels. Currently, the prevalence of FH in the UK population is around 1 in 500, but medical experts suggest that it may be higher, as it is in other European countries like the Netherlands where 1 in 200 is affected. It is caused by an altered gene and the children of a parent carrying the faulty gene have a 50:50 chance of inheriting the condition. It may lead to an earlier than average development of heart disease, which is why early testing is essential, as FH can be effectively managed.

Eating healthy for national cholesterol month

Know your level

Raised cholesterol is fairly common and over 50 percent of British adults are above the recommended level. There is really only one way to know the amount of cholesterol in your body and that is by having a test. A healthy level is as follows:

  • A total cholesterol of 5mmol/L or less
  • A non HDL-cholesterol of 4mmol/L or less
  • An LDL-cholesterol of 3mmol/L or less are
  • Fasting triglyceride should be 2mmol/L or less
  • A non-fasting triglyceride should be less than 4mmol/L.

The triglyceride levels indicate your body’s ability to clear fat from the blood after eating. This table may seem complex, but your health professional should be able to explain how it works, or consult Heart UK’s handy fact sheets.

When should you get tested?

You can get tested privately and some chemists now provide cholesterol tests. Tests are free on the NHS if you fall into any of the following categories:

  • Every 5 years if you are between the ages of 40 and 75
  • Every 12 months if you are on cholesterol lowering medication
  • Any child of a parent with inherited high cholesterol (FH) by the age of 10
  • First degree relatives of a person with FH – on being told of the risk

Ask your GP or practice nurse about getting a test done. They will probably ask you to make sure you are well hydrated and have eaten normally before the test. There may be occasions when you are asked to fast before the blood test, but your health professional will explain the reason for this request.

Take the Great Cholesterol Challenge

Managing your cholesterol level with diet and exercise is achievable and not every case requires treatment with statins, for example. This October is your opportunity to take part in the Great Cholesterol Challenge that will not only improve your help but also raise funds for Heart UK. Or, it could be the month you go for a cholesterol test. I think I’d better join you.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.