Cholesterol Awareness for Seniors

Man holding up a heart

Cholesterol levels tend to rise with the years, and because there are no symptoms or warning signs, many elderly people are unaware of their cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a primary contributing factor for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the United States.
September, dubbed National Cholesterol Month by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is an ideal time to pay special attention to cholesterol and how the levels affect health and well being. The CDC advises that adults should have a screening every five years. However, more frequent screening is recommended for men over 45 and women over 50.

Cholesterol, a natural substance found in all parts of the body, is necessary for healthy functioning. If levels are too high, cholesterol builds and causes dangerous narrowing and blockages of the arteries.

The term “cholesterol” actually refers to two substances, which work differently in the body. HDL cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein) is beneficial and actually reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke as it transports cholesterol back to the liver, where it is flushed from the body. Unfortunately, the majority of cholesterol in the human body is LDL cholesterol (Low Density Lipoproteins). This is the “bad” cholesterol that causes problems when levels rise too high.

A healthy lifestyle, beginning with nutrition, is the first defense against dangerous cholesterol levels for people of any age. Encourage your elderly loved ones to eat fewer saturated and trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol levels, and more polyunsaturated fats and other healthy fats that aid in lowering blood cholesterol levels.

Your elderly family member should eat fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and healthy carbs such as oatmeal, brown rice, pasta and whole grain bread, which can actually reduce bad cholesterol levels. Nuts, avocados, flax seeds and cold-water fish such as tuna and salmon are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which assist in keeping cholesterol at healthy levels.

A sedentary lifestyle is a contributing factor for high cholesterol. However, finding ways to exercise regularly can present challenges for older adults with mobility problems.Although two to three hours of exercise per week is recommended, it needn’t be running or aerobics. Gardening, a leisurely stroll, or staying active around the house are healthy exercises for seniors, and any exercise is better than none.

It may be difficult to convince elderly smokers to quit, but stopping results in immediate health benefits. If your loved one can’t stop, encourage him to cut down as much as possible. If he is willing to quit, enlist the help of his physician, as an effective stop-smoking plan doubles the chance of success. Be patient and provide plenty of support.

Cholesterol-lowering medications are becoming more affordable and may be the best option if lifestyle modifications fail to drop cholesterol to safe numbers, especially when elderly people have trouble maintaining a healthy weight, or if reduced mobility makes exercise difficult. However, the decision to lower cholesterol with medications is important and should be considered carefully with your loved one’s physician.

Some physicians believe that people over 70 should be wary of taking cholesterol-reducing drugs, especially people with healthy hearts and no cardiovascular issues. Research indicates that the elderly may be more likely to experience liver toxicity, aching muscles, gastrointestinal distress and other side effects.

The pros and cons should be weighed carefully and lifestyle changes should always be attempted first. Be sure to discuss the matter with your elderly loved one’s physician, who will consider factors such as family history, age and blood pressure.

If your family member is already taking cholesterol-lowering medications, she shouldn’t stop without talking to her doctor first.

Many community organizations and public health departments offer free cholesterol screening. Screenings are often offered at community health fairs, especially during National Cholesterol Month.