Older adult American women are better informed about cholesterol and more likely to monitor it than younger adult women, but gaps remain in cholesterol knowledge and efforts to screen for it adequately, according to results of a national survey released by the Society for Women’s Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy organization.
More than seventy percent of women 55 and older said they have had their cholesterol tested within the past year, but almost 20 percent said they have never had their cholesterol tested, have not had it tested in the last five years, or don’t know if they’ve ever had it tested.
The American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend that everyone 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years.
“High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and cholesterol levels naturally rise as you age, so it is important for aging women to make sure their cholesterol score is in an acceptable range,” said Jo Parrish, vice president of communications for the Society for Women’s Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based non-profit advocacy organization.
Four in 10 (41.2 percent) women 55 and older were “very surprised” or “somewhat surprised” to learn that cholesterol levels naturally increase with age. Nearly one-third (31.1 percent) were “very surprised” or “somewhat surprised” that you can still have high cholesterol levels even if you exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
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.
“Lowering your LDL level is the major goal for women and men, but there is also evidence that HDL and triglyceride levels are more important for women’s heart health than men’s,” Parrish said. “That’s why it is important for women to know about the components that make up total cholesterol and to know if their numbers are optimal.”
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.
More than half of women 55 and older surveyed did not know or incorrectly guessed the optimal levels for HDL and LDL cholesterol. Similar numbers did not know that HDL is the “good” cholesterol. Eighty percent, however, did know that less than 200 is considered a healthy range for total cholesterol. By contrast, only 63.7 percent of adult women under 45 knew that.
Heart disease typically strikes women after menopause and 10 years later in life than it strikes men.
“A healthy diet and lifestyle throughout life reduces your risk of heart disease,” Parrish said, “but as we get older and approach retirement age it is important to more closely monitor our risk factors. Fortunately, Medicare eligible patients have access to cholesterol screening through their preventive benefits package.
“Women have under utilized their Medicare preventive benefits in the past, so we want to encourage them to take advantage of these important health care services that are available to them free through Medicare.”