Women Have Poor Understanding of Cholesterol


Only one in five women between the ages of 18 and 44 know their cholesterol level, despite the fact that cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer of women in the United States.

Only one in five women between the ages of 18 and 44 know their cholesterol level, despite the fact that cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer of women in the United States. A recent survey conducted by the Society for Women’s Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy organization, confirms a general trend in women of all ages which indicates a lack of understanding about cholesterol.

“For the most part, women do not believe that heart disease risk pertains to them. They are often aware of the risk factors, but underestimate their own personal risk,” said Mary Ann Bauman, M.D., an internal medicine specialist and spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “Women focus on taking care of others and ignore themselves in favor of that.”

Roughly 50 percent of American adults have elevated cholesterol levels, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s National Cholesterol Education Program. High cholesterol can lead to heart disease, heart attack, angina or stroke. More than half of the women 18-44 surveyed were concerned about cholesterol, but the vast majority weren’t aware of their personal cholesterol level and one-quarter did not even know how cholesterol is tested.

“Heart disease is a serious threat to women. That fact that only one in five women surveyed knew their cholesterol level shows how much work remains to be done,” said Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research. “You can’t wait until mid-life or later to monitor or manage your cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for heart disease in both women and men.”

A person’s total cholesterol number is made up of low density lipoproteins (LDL), high density lipoproteins (HDL) and triglycerides, another fatty substance found in the blood. A desirable level of total cholesterol is less than 200.

LDL, known as the “bad” cholesterol, deposits on the inside of your vessels to make plaques. Elevated levels of LDL increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. An optimal level of LDL is less than 100. HDL is called the “good” cholesterol because a high HDL level decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease. For women, an HDL less than 50 is considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

An elevated cholesterol level is among the controllable risk factors for heart disease, which also include:


High blood pressure


Sedentary lifestyle


Uncontrollable risk factors for heart disease include a family history of the disease, advancing age and post-menopausal status.

Despite many public health campaigns, women continue to be more concerned about other diseases. Compared to breast cancer, for example, “most women do not have a fear of heart disease, so it is easy to ignore the risks or warning signs,” Bauman said.

The good news is that there are ways to control your cholesterol level and reduce your risk of heart disease. Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight are extremely important. Where cholesterol is concerned, adopting a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats and cholesterol is also important. In addition, quitting smoking and not using tobacco products can go a long way in preventing heart disease.

Going for regular health screenings is another way to cut your risk for heart disease. Cholesterol is easily measured with a simple blood test and the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute both recommend that everyone 20 and older should have cholesterol measured at least once every five years.

People with a history of high cholesterol or heart disease in their families may want to start regular screening earlier. According to Bauman, “Lifestyle changes at a young age will make a great difference later in life. I think of heart disease as a disease of adolescence which manifests itself in adulthood. We must start early!”


© September 13, 2007 Society for Women's Health Research

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