High cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, is a major risk factor of heart disease and stroke.
Abnormal levels of LDL cholesterol or HDL cholesterol can be treated, and the treatment for this, medics say, is through exercise, medication and maintaining a low-fat diet.
WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?
Dr Francis Kazungu, a general practitioner at Galien Clinic in Remera, says cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all the cells in the body.
He explains that the liver makes cholesterol, and it is also in some foods, such as meat and dairy products. The body needs some cholesterol to function properly. But if one has too much cholesterol in their blood, they are at a high risk of coronary artery disease.
He says for one to measure their cholesterol levels, a blood test called a lipoprotein panel can help do that, but this is found in hospitals, therefore, taking steps towards having such tests done is vital.
“The body needs some cholesterol, but not too much. A surplus can cause plaque to build up in arteries and make it hard for blood to get to the heart,” he says.
He adds that this can further lead to chest pain, and if the blood supply is completely blocked, one can have a heart attack.
NUTRITION’S ROLE IN CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
Joseph Uwiragiye, the head of the nutrition department at University Teaching Hospital Kigali (CHUK), says that the food we eat matters a lot when it comes to keeping our hearts healthy.
He explains that the right diet reduces the risk of developing heart diseases and stroke.
“Watching what you eat on a daily basis significantly aids in lowering the cholesterol levels, controlling blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as maintaining a healthy weight, all of which ensure a healthy heart,” he says.
Private Kamanzi, a nutritionist at Amazon Cabinet Clinic in Remera, says there is a range of things that can interfere with one’s cholesterol levels.
One of the most important things, he says, is one’s diet.
Here, Kamanzi explains, the saturated fat in the food one takes makes their blood cholesterol level rise.
“Saturated fat is the main problem, but cholesterol in foods also matters. Therefore, reducing the amount of saturated fat in the diet helps lower the blood cholesterol level,” he says.
Uwiragiye says that such foods (with high levels of saturated fats) include meat, dairy products, chocolate, deep-fried and processed foods, among others.
He says one should opt for olive oil because it has many benefits as far as heart health is concerned.
He says that olive oil is ideal in lowering saturated fats that are mostly found in meat, whole milk, and butter. And that staying away from such fats is important because they can raise bad cholesterol, leading to fat build up inside the arteries.
He notes that avocado is also a good fruit as it improves the well being of the heart because of its fats which are capable of lowering bad cholesterol.
He says that limiting how much saturated and trans-fats one consumes is important as it reduces blood cholesterol, as well as lowers the risk of coronary artery disease.
Another factor, Kamanzi says, is weight. He notes that being overweight brings a higher risk of developing heart disease.
Kamanzi says that to correct this, one should try losing weight by sticking to a healthy diet and being physically active.
“This can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also raises your HDL (good) cholesterol level, keeping you away from health problems,” he says.
Celestine Karangwa, a physiotherapist at TCM Technology Clinic in Remera, Kigali, says that not being physically active is also another risk factor of heart disease.
He says that regular physical activity can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also helps one lose weight. At least 30 minutes of walking or doing simple exercise is ideal.
Karangwa notes that people who smoke cigarettes are at risk of having higher bad cholesterol levels.
“Smoking lowers one’s HDL (good) cholesterol, and it’s the one supposed to help remove bad cholesterol from the arteries. So a lower HDL can contribute to a higher level of bad cholesterol,” he says.
He says that there are other things that affect cholesterol levels, however, there is not much one can do about them. For instance, he says, age and gender.
He explains that as people age, their cholesterol levels rise, and that before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL (bad) cholesterol levels tend to rise.
Karangwa says genes also determine how much cholesterol one’s body makes, and that high blood cholesterol can be genetic, making it a risk factor to some individuals.
Because high cholesterol exposes one to heart diseases, Kazungu says there are a number of heart ailments that people should be aware of.
“Heart diseases are mostly long-lasting, at first, symptoms can be hard to spot and may not disturb one’s daily life. But if left ignored, they get worse day-by-day,” he says.
He notes that the heart starts to fail, and one might be short of breath or feel tired.
For this reason, he advises that one should watch out for a swelling in the belly, ankles, feet, or legs. In many cases, he says long-term treatment can help keep things under control. Medication, lifestyle changes, surgery, or a transplant, can help fight heart complications.
He says heart conditions keep the heart from doing its job. These include coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, and heart failure, among others.
Clogged arteries is a disease of the heart, he explains, and that a buildup of sticky plaque (fat and cholesterol) can narrow the heart’s arteries, making it harder for blood to pass through.
“Many people don’t even know there’s a problem until an artery is clogged by a blood clot and they have a heart attack. But frequent chest pain is one of the major signs of the disease,’ he says.
Heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy), which is another heart disease, makes it hard for the heart to pump and carry blood to the rest of the body, health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes can cause this serious condition, which can lead to heart failure.
Kazungu says there is another condition known as sudden cardiac death, which happens when the heart’s electrical system goes erratic; making it beat irregularly and dangerously fast.
“A defibrillator can help bring back a regular heart beat, but without it, the person can die within minutes,” he says.