The leading cause of death in women in the United States is heart disease resulting from clogged arteries. Although heart attack and angina used to be thought of as a “male” disease, that is no longer the case. Over 500,000 women in 2000 died from heart disease while about 440,000 men died from the same cause in that year, according to the American Heart Association. It is estimated that one in five women has heart disease. Women who have had a heart attack have a death rate of 38%, compared with 25% in men. The chance of a second heart attack within 6 years of the first one is 35% for women but 18% for men. It is essential to understand these staggering statistics in order to grasp the importance of tackling the problem of high cholesterol in women, a major risk factor for heart attack.
Cholesterol is oily in nature but is not the same as fat. It is an essential molecule for making cell membranes, steroid hormones, nerve sheaths, and much more. The liver makes most of the cholesterol in the body and the rest comes from the diet. Too much cholesterol in the blood is known as hypercholesterolemia. This leads to clogged arteries, which causes heart attack, stroke, loss of circulation in the limbs, and kidney failure. This process is called atherosclerosis (see below).
Cholesterol in the blood is carried by protein particles called lipoproteins. The two most important are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Elevated levels of LDL are usually associated with cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels, so LDL is known as “bad cholesterol.” Elevated levels of HDL actually protect against heart disease by scavenging cholesterol and removing it from the arteries, so HDL is known as “good cholesterol.” Because of this, total cholesterol is not always the best measure of cholesterol. High HDL makes the total cholesterol level look too high but is actually a good thing.
Although high LDL is the best known risk factor for heart disease, low HDL is also an important risk factor. Low HDL occurs in weight gain, inactivity, and smoking. Factors leading to higher HDL include regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption (no more than one drink per day for women, two for men), and certain medications (see Treatment below).
Triglycerides are often measured along with cholesterol. Triglycerides are fats floating freely in the blood. If blood with a very high triglyceride level is allowed to sit in a tube, after a while a thick whitish layer of fat will rise to the top. Triglycerides are also a risk factor for heart disease, although the reason is not as well understood as it is for cholesterol.
SEE ALSO: Diabetes, Diet, Heart disease, Nutrition, Obesity