When was the first time you heard the word “cholesterol”?
For me, the day will be forever etched in my mind. I was eight years old, and my pediatrician told me that this thing I had called “cholesterol,” was 220—high and concerning for a then second grader. I remember being asked about my diet, which I thought was odd since at that time I associated weight with being the hallmark of a healthy or an unhealthy diet, and I was always of a healthy weight or underweight.
Like some children of the 1980s, I enjoyed a McDonald’s Happy Meal regularly and starting my mornings with something sugary—cereal or a piece of Sara Lee Coffee Cake. On top of that, my mom was a fabulous cook who made large southern style meals, and my Dad had a family history of high cholesterol. That combination along with my thin appearance made the fact that I would already have high cholesterol really deceiving.
Don’t let cholesterol deceive you.
What I didn’t know then but have learned over the years since is how much your diet impacts your heart health. The fat and cholesterol content of the foods you choose to consume are equally as important as what you weigh.
As fellow millennial, cardiologist, and cholesterol specialist, Nicole Harkin, MD, Founder of Whole Heart Cardiology tells us, elevated cholesterol even at a young age—including in our 20s, 30s, and early 40s—is strongly associated with the risk of developing heart disease in middle age and beyond.
She breaks down cholesterol’s role and how we can be proactive about this important component of heart health—family history or not.
YMyHealth: What is cholesterol and what role does it play in heart health?
Dr. Harkin: Cholesterol is a type of fat that is found in all of our body’s cells. But our cells all make the amount we need. It moves through our bodies packaged in vehicles called lipoproteins. It gets there from the food we eat and is synthesized in the liver.
If there are too many lipoproteins carrying cholesterol, it can deposit in the arteries of the body. Over time, these deposits cause a build-up in the arteries and can eventually clog the arteries, causing chest pain, heart attacks, and strokes.
YMyHealth: What’s the difference between high and low cholesterol?
Dr. Harkin: “High cholesterol” is when the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream is too high. This is typically determined by a blood test called the lipid panel. This will measure your total cholesterol, as well as break it down into different types.
The LDL cholesterol (or “bad cholesterol”) is the most important number to pay attention to in the standard lipid panel as this measures the amount of cholesterol contained within the lipoproteins that typically deposit cholesterol in the arteries.
YMyHealth: How often should we have our cholesterol checked and why?
Dr. Harkin: If you’ve never had your cholesterol checked, you absolutely should!
Many people are surprised, even when they are young, that it can be high. It can be elevated either due to genetics, lifestyle, or both.
It’s very important to know that number, because if elevated, it should be brought down either with lifestyle changes or medications. If left untreated, it can begin to deposit in the arteries and lead to heart disease.
It depends on risk factors and if your cholesterol is elevated or not, but the average person without risk should have it checked every few years or so. If you have risk factors or are found to have high cholesterol, it should be followed more closely.
YMyHealth: About half of millennials were born in the 1980s, which is when processed foods became mainstream. How does this affect our outlook for heart health? Also, how can making changes to a healthier diet with less processed food or becoming a vegetarian or pescatarian in our late 20s or 30s impact our heart health for the rest of our lives?
Dr. Harkin: Processed and packaged foods are absolutely detrimental to our health and our heart health specifically. While packaged food on occasion can be a part of all of our diets, it ideally shouldn’t be the bulk of our diet.
Studies have shown that individuals who consumed more ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. This is because these foods tend to be high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat, while low in fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients.
Switching to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds at any age is great news for our heart!
YMyHealth: What should millennials be proactive about in terms of their cholesterol? Why does it matter?
Dr. Harkin: Elevated cholesterol at a young age is strongly associated with risk of heart disease in middle age and beyond. This is because the longer that a person has elevated cholesterol, the longer it has to deposit in the arteries and cause damage. It also means you could develop heart disease as a younger age.
YMyHealth: If millennials have a family history of high cholesterol, is there anything they need to do differently in being proactive about their cholesterol?
Dr. Harkin: If you have a strong family history of heart disease, it’s particularly important to keep an eye on your cholesterol. Many genetic causes of premature heart disease are due to cholesterol issues which can be inherited. So, you may have a very elevated cholesterol at a young age, but have no idea – you can’t feel high cholesterol and often times there may be no outward signs.
Depending on your additional history, your doctor also may recommend you aim for a lower level of cholesterol than the average person. There are also cholesterol issues your doctor may want to screen you for.
To learn more information on heart conditions that effect millennials and how we can prevent ourselves from getting heart disease, visit YMyHealth’s Heart Health page.