by  Theodore Feldman MD FACC

A CHOLESTEROL test (also known as a lipid panel or lipid profile) is an essential part of a physical checkup. One reason is that, different from many other conditions, an unhealthy cholesterol level has no signs or symptoms. It’s important, then, to have four calculations made:

1. Total cholesterol level.

2. Level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, sometimes called “good” cholesterol.

3. Level of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, sometimes called “bad” cholesterol.

4. Level of triglycerides, stored in fat cells.

Too much cholesterol in the blood can result in fatty buildup in the arteries, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. The risk is compounded when a patient is overweight, sedentary, has diabetes, eats a high-fat diet, or has a family history of heart disease. There are many misconceptions about cholesterol that can cause those at risk to underestimate the danger. Consider just five of them.

Misconception #1: “I only eat one egg a day, so I don’t have to worry about my cholesterol.”

Fact: It’s not the egg; it’s the egg plus whatever else you’re eating.  The recommended daily limit of cholesterol is 300 milligrams. One egg has 185. Add half-and-half to your coffee, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and steak for dinner, and your ‘modest’ cholesterol intake could soar to twice the recommended daily portion.

Misconception #2: “I use margarine instead of butter; so I don’t have to worry about my cholesterol.”

Fact: Both butter and margarine are high in fat. The real issue is how much saturated or trans fat you use.

Misconception #3: “I’m a woman, so I don’t have to worry about cholesterol; it’s a man’s problem.”

Fact: While it’s true that premenopausal women have an advantage—estrogen tends to increase the level of good cholesterol, which helps carry away the bad—postmenopausal women have less estrogen, and thus less of an advantage. In fact, the cholesterol level tends to increase in women as they age.

Misconception #4: “I’m thin, I’m not overweight—so I don’t have to worry about my cholesterol.”

Fact: Body shape and weight aren’t the determining factors. The American Heart Association warns: “Often people who don’t gain weight easily are less aware of how much saturated and trans fat they eat. Nobody can ‘eat anything they want’ and stay heart healthy. Have your cholesterol checked regularly regardless of your weight, physical activity and diet.”

Misconception #5: “I’m young, so I don’t have to worry about my cholesterol.”

Fact: While it’s true that men over 45 and women over 55 are especially prone to the effects of unhealthy cholesterol levels, young people have good reason to be concerned too. Even children can have high cholesterol, and when they do they are at greater risk of heart disease than adults. For good reason, it is recommended that a lipid profile be taken at least every five years beginning at age 20—and even earlier if there is a family history of abnormal cholesterol levels or premature coronary artery disease.

Clearly, high cholesterol cannot be chalked up to eggs, butter, gender, body shape, or age. A simple blood test can get past the misconceptions. And if the results show that you need to make adjustments, don’t be discouraged. A few changes might just save your life—and your enjoyment of it.