There are 100 pennies in a dollar and 100 years in a century. In addition to being the square of 10, the number 100 serves to mark milestones. However, when it comes to your cholesterol level, gone are the days where your physician would prescribe medications for levels greater than 100.
Newly re-leased guidelines by the two major American heart societies are now stating bad cholesterol levels "ain't nothing but a number." However, this means that one in three Americans will fall under the category of needing to take a cholesterol lowering medication. On your next visit, will your doctor tell you that you need one? Let's take a closer look at what this may mean to you:
Do I fall under the new recommendations to take medications?
If you have heart disease, are older than age 40 and have diabetes, or have an increased risk for heart disease you may very well be receiving a new prescription at your next doctor's visit. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include age, male gender, a family history of heart disease, smoking, poorly controlled high blood pressure, obesity and physical inactivity.
The is an easy-to-use risk calculator that can help assess where you fall on the American Heart Association's website (heart.org).
Why change the guidelines?
The answer is simple: to help us live longer and healthier lives. The new guidelines state that when cholesterol-lowering medications are combined with a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise habits and avoidance of tobacco products, the risk for heart attack, stroke and death decrease. They aim for a "whole-istic" approach not an arbitrary cut off of 100.
What is a statin?
It is a cholesterol-lowering drug that inhibits an enzyme in the liver that is responsible for synthesizing bad cholesterol. High levels of bad cholesterol accelerate the development of fatty plaques (atherosclerosis) inside blood vessel walls. This creates a blockage that reduces blood flow. Think of it as the thin portion of an hourglass. Blood flow is similar to the opening line of "Days of Our Lives": "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives." By preventing plaque buildup that will hinder blood flow to your heart, you will likely have more days in your life.
Additionally, statins also decrease inflammation. Although inflammation is necessary to protect your body from bacterial and viral invaders, it causes cholesterol to become trapped within plaques. Without inflammation it is likely cholesterol would move freely through the body as nature intended. Still not convinced? Imagine if you scratched your arm daily. You would see an inflammatory response that may include redness and bleeding. Over time, the damage would accumulate and become blistered or scarred. So why are we seeing an increase in inflammation and heart disease? Experts suspect the advent of highly processed carbohydrates, processed foods and smoking.
Do statins have side effects?
The most common side effect is muscle pain that manifests as soreness, weakness or muscle fatigue. It can range from mild discomfort to severe limitations that may prevent you from walking or climbing up a flight of stairs. If this occurs, speak with your doctor. The good news is that a different statin may work for you. You may have to go through two or three different medications before finding the one you can tolerate. Other less common reactions to be aware of include rashes, digestive problems, liver damage and increased blood sugars.
The take-home message is that you should have a discussion with your doctor to determine if you or a family member would benefit from taking a statin. The goal is to get the right patient on the right statin at the right dose. These drugs are not a silver bullet that will eliminate your risk for heart disease, stroke or death. But when combined with other healthy lifestyle interventions, can potentially scare off the werewolf.
Dr Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions on general medical topics to her at firstname.lastname@example.org