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Dr. Alvarez, a women’s cardiologist, sits on a white chair in a field of spring plants

The weather’s already warming up here in sunny central Florida, and spring cleaning is on our minds. But as you get ready for a fresh start this season, don’t overlook your arteries! Your arteries are where excess bad cholesterol builds up, becoming a major risk factor for heart disease and strokes. So in addition to scrubbing the baseboards and stowing the winter sheets, we should all be thinking about heart disease prevention, including how to lower cholesterol!

You probably know that too much cholesterol is unhealthy, but do you really know what cholesterol is, what your ideal levels should be, or how cholesterol is different for women? It’s okay if you don’t—that’s why we’re here to give you a crash course in cholesterol!

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in every cell of our bodies and in some of the foods we eat. We actually need some cholesterol to help us produce estrogen, progesterone, vitamin D, and bile acids that absorb fat. 

It’s the “bad” cholesterol we need to be on the lookout for, as it deposits in our arteries and hardens. This buildup (or plaque) can lead to restricted blood flow or clots that can break loose and cause a heart attack or stroke.

So what is good cholesterol and what is bad cholesterol?

  • LDL Cholesterol = Bad Cholesterol: LDL stands for “low-density lipoprotein.” It sticks to the lining of your arteries, causing inflammation and restricted blood flow.
  • HDL Cholesterol = Good Cholesterol: HDL stands for “high-density lipoprotein.” HDL is “good” because it helps remove the bad cholesterol from your bloodstream.

Normal Cholesterol Levels for Women

We measure cholesterol in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL) of blood to show the concentration of cholesterol in your bloodstream. For women, the ideal HDL level is near or above 60 mg/dL—that’s the good kind, so higher numbers are better. 

You may be at risk for heart disease if your good cholesterol falls under 50 mg/dL. On the other hand, your target for LDL cholesterol—the bad kind—should be under 100 mg/dL. Your total cholesterol, which is a measure of LDL and HDL put together, should be below 200 mg/dL. 

Symptoms of High Cholesterol

Unfortunately, like all types of cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol is a silent condition with no symptoms. However, knowing your risk factors can help you monitor your heart health!

Cholesterol affects women differently. Generally speaking, we produce more HDL and less LDL than men. That’s because estrogen actually plays a protective role in keeping our HDL levels high. After menopause, though, things change. 

As we produce less estrogen, our good cholesterol drops significantly. By the time we are over 55, women tend to have higher levels of bad cholesterol than men. 

Of course, genetics and lifestyle play a huge role in our heart health at every age—estrogen can’t protect us from everything. Buildup can begin as early as our 20s, so all women should take an active role in their heart disease prevention!

How to Lower Cholesterol

The first step is to get your cholesterol checked regularly. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends getting tested at least every five years, starting in childhood. For women over 55, annual cholesterol tests are recommended.

Lifestyle modifications—like quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight—are very important. Easier said than done, right? Thankfully, you can start a low cholesterol diet with simple swaps that don’t feel limiting. 

High Cholesterol Foods

Start by cutting out or reducing your intake of foods that raise LDL, or bad cholesterol, including:

  • Drinks and juices with added sugar, including alcohol
  • Simple carbs, like baked goods, white bread, and candy
  • Saturated fats, like fatty cuts of meat and full-fat dairy products
  • Trans fats, like processed foods and packaged snacks

Foods that Lower Cholesterol

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can help you boost your good cholesterol and chip away at the bad. Consider foods such as:

  • Oats, barley, and other whole grains high in soluble fiber
  • Beans, especially kidney beans, lentils, garbanzos, and more
  • Nuts, including almonds, pecans, and walnuts, for a full-scale heart boost
  • Olive oil instead of butter or heavy dressings
  • Spices instead of salt for flavor
  • Fatty fish like salmon and tuna instead of red and/or processed meats

Get Help with a Heart Disease Prevention Program

There are plenty of ways to start a spring cleaning plan for your arteries. If you’ve been told you have high cholesterol, you have a family history of heart disease, or you simply want to prioritize your heart health, joining a supportive program can help. 

With comprehensive, compassionate, and female-focused care, you can set yourself up to live a longer, healthier life. To learn more about joining a heart-healthy community led by a women’s cardiologist, call Dr. Nitza Alverez at 352-717-0220 or get in touch online today!

NitzaMD: Add More Life to Your Life in Central Florida

At NitzaMD, we offer comprehensive cardiac screening and heart disease prevention programs to women in The Villages, Lady Lake, and beyond. Learn more about Dr. Alvarez and her mission to educate and empower women about their cardiovascular health.

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