Most people, when they think of cholesterol levels, picture fatty foods, plaque coated artery walls and heart disease. But there are more than a few things about this waxy substance that might surprise you.
1. Sky high cholesterol may be partly due to genetics – for some families it’s inevitable that LDL (bad) cholesterol will be in the unhealthy zone. Known technically as familial hypercholesterolemia, it’s an issue for 1 in 500 of us and increase the risk for early heart attack. Some who inherit defective genes from each parent (much rarer, affecting 1 in 1,000,000) can have total cholesterol numbers over 1000 mg/dL. Numbers this high can signal early death, often before 20 years old.
2. Clogged arteries look like butter – LDL (bad) cholesterol slowly builds up on artery walls, leaving a thick plaque that narrows arteries, restricts blood flow and can lead to blood clots. Once arteries start to thicken and become rigid, they take on the yellow color of cholesterol, leaving them looking as though they are lined with a layer of frozen butter.
3. You can see high cholesterol on your skin – look for reddish-yellowish bumps on your skin surface, known to medicine as xanthomas, that vary in size and can show up all over the body including your eyelids, joints and hands. Often they appear in older folks or those with diabetes or other health issues.
4. Your total cholesterol number can be too low – and at these levels, just as unhealthy as high cholesterol. While your total cholesterol number should be under 200 mg/dL; numbers below 160 mg/dL are associated with health risks like cancer.
Experts still cannot say if the health problems cause the low cholesterol or vice versa. Some work has also found that pregnant women with low total cholesterol are more apt to give birth prematurely. Low total cholesterol, as well as LDL levels have each been linked to anxiety and depression.
5. Our total cholesterol numbers are dropping – unlike the obesity epidemic, total cholesterol numbers have gone down over the last few years. And while elevated cholesterol wasn’t recognized as a serious health problem 50 years ago, the numbers are dropping now mostly because more of us are aware of the dangers – we’re screened more, there are healthier dietary options available and the widespread use of statin drugs all combine to keep those numbers in check.
6. Exercise boosts good cholesterol – just one of the many good things regular exercise can do, a recent study in the Journal of Lipid Research suggests that those workouts might affect cholesterol differently depending on the race and gender of the patient.
In each of the groups the researchers studied, physical activity equal to an extra hour of mild exercise or a half hour of moderate exercise per week, was linked to an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol. The bad (LDL) cholesterol dropped only in women, and total cholesterol dropped only in African-American women.
7. Cholesterol free food can still raise cholesterol – only in animal based foods like milk, eggs and meat, even though you’ll see foods that can honestly say they are “cholesterol free”, that doesn’t mean they’re exactly good for your cholesterol levels.
Fried foods and baked goods are loaded with trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) and these, along with saturated fats, are the biggest causes of getting high cholesterol from food – yet they aren’t listed as cholesterol on any package. Read labels with care, looking for fat as well as cholesterol content before deciding if a food is a healthy option.
8. High cholesterol can cause erectile dysfunction (ED) – high cholesterol numbers have been linked to a higher risk of erectile dysfunction, kidney failure and even Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 study found that diets high in cholesterol brought an increased risk of developing cirrhosis of the live or liver cancer. A Swedish study from 2005 suggests that men with total cholesterol of around 270 mg/dL and over were 4.5 times more likely to develop testicular cancer than men with total cholesterol numbers of 220 mg/dL or below.