Though heart disease kills more women than men in the United States, it's interesting to note that women have much lower cholesterol. The reason for this is that estrogen helps raise your level of HDL cholesterol, which is the good kind - it fights against the bad kind and doesn't stick to your arteries. LDL is the bad kind, which sticks to your arteries and forms the plaque that can eventually block them. After menopause, your level of bad cholesterol typically jumps around ten percent very quickly. This is because of a loss of estrogen - that helpful hormone which gives most younger women a cholesterol advantage. So what does this mean? It all depends.
1. How do you get high LDL levels?
Too much bad cholesterol is usually a result of several factors that you can probably guess. It's in many foods, especially red meat, cakes, and pies. Anything with cream or lard that has high saturated fat content will increase your cholesterol levels. Overweight people have a higher risk for bad cholesterol levels, as does anyone who doesn't exercise daily. Smoking is also a huge factor on cholesterol. In fact, lighting up that cigarette is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease in general.
2. Is the risk different for women?
It's already been proven that women have an easier time producing good cholesterol before menopause, but now scientists believe that LDL levels are a bigger risk factor of stroke for men than they are for women. For women, the key to keeping your arteries unblocked might be more about boosting HDL levels, especially after your body stops producing estrogen. Certain foods like orange juice, vegetables, and soy can boost your HDL, but the things that lower your bad cholesterol levels, like losing weight and exercising, usually boost your good levels, too.
3. How do you tell if you have high cholesterol?
The American Heart Association estimates that about 40 percent of American women have high LDL levels of cholesterol, while nearly two thirds are overweight or obese. The most important thing to know about having high cholesterol is that there are no symptoms. There is absolutely no way to know your cholesterol levels without a cholesterol test given by a doctor or medical facility. But if you're past menopause, or if you're pre-menopausal but have several other key factors for heart disease, it is safe to assume your levels might be high, and it's worth getting tested to find out.
4. What exactly does high cholesterol do?
The build-up of plaque in your arteries caused by bad cholesterol means not enough blood can pass through them to your heart, which means you can suffer a heart attack or stroke. There's also the risk of a puncture or break in the plaque, where deadly blood clots can form. Either way, cholesterol leads to irreparable damage to your cardiac walls, which can set you up for a number of possible heart problems. It's not the only factor in determining whether you get heart disease, but it is a significant and dangerous one.
Menopause changes a variety of things about a woman's health, and it just means that as you get older, you have to be more vigilant about knowing what's going on in your body. The most important thing women can do at any age is live an active and healthy lifestyle, which reduces your chance of heart problems. But getting a cholesterol test so you can understand your levels of both good and bad cholesterol is vital. Your body chemistry is different than a man's, but your health should be just as important.
John Martin writes for health blogs.