More people than ever are becoming aware of the major role that heart health plays in their lives as they age.
Maybe your parent or someone you know has had a heart attack, heart failure, or a stroke? Or suffered from blocked coronary arteries? Maybe you’ve even heard from your own healthcare provider that you’re at risk for heart disease?
One major way for you or your senior parent to lower the risk of these heart-related ailments is to get your cholesterol levels into the optimum range.
Reducing high cholesterol in seniors and keeping those levels in a healthy range is a great way to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and a host of other health problems in the future.
Here’s what you need to know about seniors and cholesterol, how to reduce high cholesterol, and how to maintain those healthy levels.
What is cholesterol anyway?
Contrary to the diet information that you may have heard in the past, not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, your body needs cholesterol to function.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring, fat-like substance that’s found in every cell in your body. Your body uses cholesterol for many of its most vital processes, including making :
The outer layer of the cell that protect it and keep unwanted substances out
Hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol
Bile acids that help you digest food
Earwax that helps clean and protect your ear canal
Triglycerides that help to store energy aid absorption of some vitamins
Your liver is able to produce most of the cholesterol that your body needs. The rest comes from the foods you eat.
When healthcare providers talk about cholesterol, they’re usually referring to three substances that circulate in your bloodstream.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: This is referred to as a type of “bad” cholesterol because, when it remains high for long periods, LDL can lead to build-up in your arteries.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: This is often called “good” cholesterol because HDL carries other types of cholesterol back to the liver from elsewhere in the body so that it can be removed.
Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol: This is also often referred to as a type of “bad” cholesterol because VLDL carries triglycerides, which can cause heart disease if chronically elevated.
By monitoring the levels of these types of cholesterol in your bloodstream, your parent’s healthcare provider can estimate their risk of developing heart disease.
What should a senior’s cholesterol levels be?
Your parent can have their cholesterol levels measured with a simple blood test called a lipid panel.
Typically, this test is done while fasting. This means that your parent will have their blood drawn after they have had nothing to eat or drink except water for the previous eight hours. Healthcare providers do this because triglyceride levels can be elevated after you eat.
There are some times when this test can be done without fasting. If your parent has medications or medical issues that can make fasting difficult, encourage them to talk to their provider about other options.
During the test, a small sample of blood is drawn from a vein on the inside of their elbow. The results of your parent’s cholesterol test are usually returned quickly, but the exact time could vary depending on which lab service they use.
Very high or severely elevated: greater than 886 mg/dL
Optimal: less than 100 mg/ dL
Near optimal/above optimal:100 to 129 mg/dL
Borderline high: 130 to 159 mg/dL
High: 160 to 189 mg/dL
Very high: greater than 190 mg/dL
Low: less than 40
High: greater than or equal to 60
Your parent’s healthcare provider will evaluate these test results along with other factors such as age, sex, medical history, and family history. They will then discuss with your parent the risk of them developing heart disease and steps they can take to reduce that risk.
What happens if high cholesterol goes untreated?
Having high cholesterol doesn’t cause any physical symptoms at first. Your parent might think that because they don’t feel unwell, then they don’t need to worry about high cholesterol. This isn’t true, though.
Untreated high cholesterol in seniors can cause significant health problems that can shorten their lives. These complications include:
Having high cholesterol levels is often a life-long condition. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to manage through diet, lifestyle changes, and medications.
How do you reduce high cholesterol in seniors?
There are many options for treating high cholesterol in seniors. The most effective approach is usually a combination of treatments customized to your parent’s lifestyle and medical history. Their healthcare provider can help them choose the best options for them.
For most people with high cholesterol, the first step is evaluating their lifestyle. An unhealthy lifestyle can cause or worsen high cholesterol levels. Some changes that your parent can make to their daily routine to lower their risk of heart disease include:
Another important lifestyle factor is stress. A study with 5000 participants looked at the effects of physical and emotional stress on cholesterol levels. The study found that emotional stress was a risk factor for increasing triglycerides and LDL levels and for decreased HDL levels. Getting a proper amount of physical activity could help prevent this.
The main sources of cholesterol in the diet are saturated fatty acids. Foods with higher amounts of saturated fats include:
Full-fat dairy products
This doesn’t mean that your parent needs to give these foods up, but the current dietary guidelines recommend limiting foods high in saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calories. People who have other medical conditions predisposing them to heart disease should aim for less than 5-6%.
Calories from trans fats should be avoided whenever possible. Common sources of trans fats include:
Some seniors can manage their high cholesterol with diet and exercise alone. For others, especially if high cholesterol runs in the family, medication might be needed as well.
There are several different types of cholesterol medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They work in different ways to lower your LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, or triglycerides. Some can even help to raise HDL cholesterol.
The most commonly prescribed class of medication for lowering cholesterol levels is statins. They help to stop the body from making cholesterol. Statins have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of non-fatal heart attacks, strokes caused by blockages, and the need for surgery for blocked arteries. However, they tend to have side effects that some people can’t tolerate, like muscle pain.
If statins don’t work well for your parent, or they have side effects, there are other types of medication that can also be used to treat high cholesterol in seniors.
We’re here to help
Parentis Health is here to help you take care of your senior parent’s healthcare needs every step of the way.
Whether it’s transportation to medical appointments, home healthcare, in-home caregivers, residential care, or hospice, our comprehensive services ensure that seniors in our care maintain their independence and preserve their quality of life.