Heart disease causes one in three deaths in women every year, and more women than men suffer from high blood cholesterol, one of the major risk factors. Despite these facts, many women continue to consider high cholesterol and heart disease a male health problem. Protect yourself by asking your doctor to do a routine cholesterol test that can determine your cholesterol ratio. Understanding your cholesterol ratio requires you to understand the types of cholesterol and how they affect your risk for heart disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver that provides structure to cell membranes and produces steroid hormones like estradiol and progesterone. Because cholesterol cannot travel through the bloodstream on its own, the liver produces specialized proteins called lipoproteins to carry the cholesterol. Although all cholesterol is the same, a cholesterol test reports different types based on the lipoprotein carrying the cholesterol.
High-density lipoprotein, known as HDL, picks up excess cholesterol from cells and carries it to the liver. The liver then uses this cholesterol to make bile acids. The liver secretes the bile acids to the small intestine, where they break up dietary fat into small pieces the cells can absorb. Your body excretes some of the bile acids with the waste and circulates some back to the liver. Bile acid secretion is the main route for eliminating cholesterol from your body, making HDL known as the good cholesterol. Doctors encourage women to keep their HDL level higher than 50 milligrams per deciliter and consider any level greater than 60 as protective against heart disease.
Cholesterol tests report the total cholesterol, which is the amount of HDL cholesterol plus the amount of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells. Doctors call LDL the bad cholesterol because it can stick to the walls of blood vessels causing plaque formation and restricting the flow of blood. Because of this, the American Heart Association recommends adults keep their LDL to less than 100 milligrams per deciliter and caution that anything higher than 130 milligrams per deciliter increases your heart disease risk. It also recommends keeping your total cholesterol to less than 200 milligrams per deciliter.
Many doctors use your cholesterol ratio to determine your risk for heart disease. You can calculate your cholesterol ratio by dividing your total cholesterol by your HDL cholesterol. For example, if your total cholesterol is 200 milligrams per deciliter and your HDL cholesterol is 50 milligrams per deciliter, your cholesterol ratio is 4:1. To lower your risk for heart disease, keep your ratio to less than 5:1 and strive to get to the ideal ratio of 3.5:1. The lower your cholesterol ratio, the lower your risk for heart disease.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease
- Healthywomen.org: Cholesterol
- American Heart Association Go Red for Women: Causes and Prevention of Heart Disease
- American Heart Association: What Your Levels Mean
- Mayo Clinic: How Important is Cholesterol Ratio?
- Colorado State University: Secretion of Bile and the Role of Bile Acids in Digestion
- The Merck Manual: Overview of Cholesterol and Lipid Disorders
- American Heart Association: About Cholesterol
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