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More than half a million people die from heart disease each year. Because high cholesterol is a major risk factor for the disease, detecting and lowering cholesterol is a high priority for physicians at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.

“Lowering high cholesterol levels can decrease the progression of vascular diseases including heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease,” says Patricia Moyer, M.D., Internist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. “For many patients, it’s imperative we aggressively treat high cholesterol.”

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) and the American Heart Association, men and women should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years beginning at age 20. Theses blood tests measure:

* Total cholesterol, which determines the risk for heart disease. A healthy total cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL.

* LDL (bad) cholesterol, which causes narrowing and blocking of the arteries, increasing the risk for heart disease. A healthy LDL is less than 100 mg/dL.

* HDL (good) cholesterol, which helps prevent bad cholesterol from building up in the arteries and ultimately protects against heart disease. Unlike other cholesterol levels, this number should be higher. A healthy HDL is 60 mg/dL or more.

* Triglycerides, which are a form of fat in the blood, increase the risk for heart disease. A healthy triglyceride level is below 150mg/dL.

Several factors can affect your cholesterol, including:

* Diet. Foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol increase blood cholesterol levels.

* Weight. Excess weight can increase your blood cholesterol levels.

* Age and Gender. Blood cholesterol levels increase with age. Men usually develop higher cholesterol before women, while women’s cholesterol levels often increase after menopause.

* Heredity. High cholesterol can be genetic.

* Smoking. Tobacco smoke lowers good cholesterol levels.

“Our goal is to treat high cholesterol first with diet and exercise,” says Dr. Moyer. This involves losing weight, eating a heart-healthy diet and increasing physical activity. Patients have to be diligent and self-motivated for these methods to be effective. “They have to make conscious decisions about what they eat by being selective about what foods they choose,” says Dr. Moyer.

She suggests food high in dietary fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Choose lean meats, skinless poultry and fish. Dr. Moyer says people should choose oils wisely as well. Substitute hard margarines and shortening for liquid vegetable oils and soft margarines. If conservative methods aren’t enough, cholesterol-lowering medications are available.

Physicians at Mount Auburn Hospital are dedicated to their patient’s health and work to develop individual goals for each of their patients. By keeping healthy cholesterol levels, years can be added to life.

For a free Mount Auburn Hospital physician directory, please call us at 617-499-5094.