The constant, regular flow of blood circulating throughout the body is a function most people take for granted — even less noticeable than breathing. But just as you would quickly feel the ill effects of a lack of oxygen were your breathing suddenly compromised, the effects of a blockage in the arteries can yield equally devastating results, often with little warning.
The blockage of arteries, often caused by a build up of the waxy, fat-like substance known as cholesterol, is something most people have heard just enough about to know they probably don’t want to hear anymore. But as with so many elements of physical health, when it comes to problems associated with cholesterol, knowledge and prevention are key.
“Most of the time cholesterol care is a process,” said Dr. Arne Olsen. “Once you recognize there are problems, you’re past the point of prevention. Now you’re in treatment mode.”
As a vascular surgeon with Intermountain Healthcare, Dr. Olsen spends a lot of his time working with patients who have waited too long to worry about their cholesterol levels. And even though he enjoys doing surgery as a profession, he would much rather patients take preventative steps to avoid meeting with him in the operating room.
“It’s like the old GI Joe saying, ‘knowing is half the battle,’” Dr. Olsen said.
Depending on the patient, that knowledge might include a hereditary predisposition to high cholesterol that needs to be treated with medication; or cholesterol that can be managed with diet and exercise, or a combination of the two. No matter the specific circumstance, the patient’s primary care physician is the first line of defense in figuring it out.
“The information can be determined by basic blood work,” Dr. Olsen said. “However, a lot of people put off this kind of assessment because they don’t really want to know the answer. Ignorance is bliss.”
Generally the treatment for problematic cholesterol levels includes changes to diet and exercise, and possibly medication. Either way, it will take work on the part of the patient, and that is something Dr. Olsen said is a deterrent to a lot of people.
“Diet and exercise works for just about everything in life,” Dr. Olsen said. “It’s not sexy. It’s not a pill that will quickly make it better, but it is durable.”
It’s certainly more palatable than the aftermath of a patient whose cholesterol levels are out of control.
“Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people,” Dr. Olsen said. “There are people who are taking meds, exercising and dieting and they still develop issues.”
“Whether the result is heart attack, stroke, abdominal aortic aneurysms, or lower extremity/peripheral artery disease (PAD), they’re all related,” Dr. Olsen said. “It’s the same process, just a different vascular bed.”
When it comes to preventative health care, some patients tend to get lost in the weeds trying to determine which foods are on the “good” and “bad” list of any given diet. However, Dr. Olsen said it is much more manageable to approach a healthy lifestyle with a moderation mentality.
“I like bacon. But I don’t eat bacon at every single meal,” Dr. Olsen said. “Eggs can be very useful and helpful. But if I’m eating fried eggs every meal, that’s over the top.”
“We actually need cholesterol in the body,” Dr. Olsen continued. “Just like we need certain amounts of any vitamin or mineral. But we need them in the proper amounts. Too much or too little of can be problematic.”
Dr. Olsen said the ebb and flow in popularity of various fad diets have a definite impact on how patients see the world of cholesterol health, a challenge undoubtedly felt by the entire medical profession.
“We have greater challenges in establishing trust in the patient/provider relationship because someone out there with a little bit of knowledge is sharing a half truth about a certain diet and people take that and run with it,” Dr. Olsen said. “Anecdotally someone might eat bacon for every meal and have perfect cholesterol, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.”
In general, Dr. Olsen said people have their cholesterol checked in their 20s, 30s or even 40s — often a result of a requirement for life insurance policies — but if there is a family history of cholesterol issues, they should have it checked on the earlier end of that timeline. Once again, the primary care physician is the one who serves as the important starting point in the process.
“We can’t over emphasize the important part of primary care in coordinating patients’ healthcare,” Dr. Olsen said.
And whatever you do, don’t let ignorance be your guide.
“Don’t be afraid to have your cholesterol checked,” Dr. Olsen said. “It is certainly much easier to treat the known in a controlled setting than the unknown in an emergent setting.”
This Live Well column represents collaboration between healthcare professionals from the medical staffs of our not-for-profit Intermountain Healthcare hospitals and The Spectrum & Daily News.