February is American Heart Month, which reminds us to consider our heart care and self-care. Caregivers in San Diego who provide home care solutions for seniors should take this opportunity to consider risk factors for heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and has been for the last 95 years. Many of the diseases in the heart disease ‘family’ share risk factors, and high cholesterol is one of the most common. Cholesterol impacts heart health progressively, so it’s appropriate for anyone receiving in home care in San Diego and their companion to know the role of cholesterol in senior heart health.

What is Cholesterol?

The body naturally produces two kinds of cholesterol, one of which is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), a fat that travels around the body in the blood to the places it’s needed. The other, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), tends to get stuck in the arteries, damaging the artery walls and provoking clean-up attempts from white blood cells. The resulting debris hardens into plaque and progressively blocks the proper flow of blood. The body’s natural defenses repeatedly try to clear the blockage and repair the damage. If successful, these efforts release a clot of hard gunk that flows to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke. If unsuccessful, the blockage continues to impede bloodflow. According to WebMD, “As your cholesterol level gets higher, so does the likelihood that more plaques will form. The link between cholesterol and life-threatening events makes treating high cholesterol a priority.” The appropriate levels of cholesterol are based on your total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides levels, which a cholesterol test will reveal.

Why is Managing Cholesterol Important for Seniors?

The most common heart diseases include coronary artery disease, cardiac arrest, high blood pressure and stroke. High cholesterol levels are implicated in most heart diseases, and in coronary artery disease (CAD) in particular. CAD affects 18.2 million Americans, and is the leading cause of death among heart diseases. While eighty percent of deaths caused by CAD are adults over 65, managing cholesterol is should be a lifelong project for everyone. According to the CDC, “High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. About half of Americans (47%) have at least one of these three risk factors.”

Cholesterol Risk Factors

According to the Web MD website, “[C]holesterol plaques are progressive — meaning they get worse with time. They are also preventable. Nine risk factors are to blame for up to 90% of all heart attacks including:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Abdominal obesity (“spare tire”)
  • Stress
  • Not eating many fruits and vegetables
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol — more than one drink per day for women, or more than one or two drinks per day for men
  • Not getting regular physical activity”

Cholesterol Treatment Strategies

Fortunately for seniors and their San Diego home care providers, most of these risk factors are lifestyle-based rather than congenital. While it’s rarely possible to dislodge cholesterol plaque once it’s settled in, it’s very possible to reduce the growth of plaque, and even shrink buildup slightly. Quitting smoking, getting more exercise, eating well, reducing stress and limiting alcohol consumption are all vital to managing cholesterol. These changes can also address conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. It’s a win-win! Drugs can also help, like, fibrates, niacin, bile acid sequestrants and statins, which are by far the most prescribed. Statins can’t replace lifestyle changes, or overcome the lifestyle risks, so the best approach to managing cholesterol is using all the tools available.

Managing cholesterol levels is important at every age, but seniors and companion caregivers especially need to protect the senior heart. February is a great time to get tested, and to evaluate one’s lifestyle for cholesterol risks.