"The good cholesterol, HDL, is responsible for taking bad cholesterol out of the body. LDL is the cholesterol that clogs our arteries," explains Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist with the American Heart Association during an interview on The Early Show.
Lowering levels of bad cholesterol is the primary focus of heart disease prevention. However, lowering LDL alone fails to prevent 60-70 percent of events related to coronary artery disease. Over the last 20 years, the primary focus of heart disease prevention has been to lower levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol). Now, attention is beginning to shift to other major lipids, such as HDL ("good" cholesterol) and triglycerides in the prevention of heart disease.
Goldberg tells co-anchor Julie Chen, "The bad cholesterol, LDL, should be less than 100 if you have heart disease and less than 130, if you don't have heart disease. HDL in women should be greater than 50 and greater than 40 in men. The optimum level of triglycerides is 150."
She says some risk factors for heart disease (like HDL and triglyceride levels) apply to women more than men.
"Triglycerides, like HDL, are often ignored but very important," Dr. Goldberg says, "We find that high levels of triglycerides increase a woman's risk. We found that out even before we realized that that was a risk factor in men."
By knowing all their cholesterol numbers and communicating with their doctors and nurses, women can better manage their HDL and triglyceride levels through diet, weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise, or prescription medications.
Cholesterol levels are different for men and for women. "The big difference is in the HDL cholesterol," Dr. Goldberg says, "Women's HDL cholesterol needs to be greater than 50, because we have higher HDL cholesterols than men to start off with. Men need 40 or higher."
An open dialogue is the first step to fighting heart disease. A new campaign is being launched by the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association called, "What's Missing in CholesterALL?"
For those who want to educate themselves on this topic at raiseyourcholesterol.com, Goldberg says, "They can download a booklet that can give them all the information on how to improve their HDL cholesterol and also questions to ask their doctor."
According to a new Harris Interactive survey of 2,700 women, 81 percent of respondents could not name their HDL ("good") cholesterol or LDL ("bad") cholesterol numbers; 84 percent could not name their triglyceride levels. However, nearly all respondents agreed it is important to know one's cholesterol numbers, and most claimed to be knowledgeable about cholesterol in general. A total of 59 percent did not know that HDL is the "good" cholesterol and that LDL is the "bad."
Surprisingly, this lack of understanding extends to those who are taking action to improve their cholesterol levels. A total of 82 percent of the women who reported taking a prescription medicine to raise their HDL said they were taking a statin. While statins moderately raise HDL, their primary function is to lower LDL.
Goldberg says, "I'm always reinforcing to women that they need to know what their medications are. When you go to the doctor, you need to bring a list of all your medications. Sometimes we use combinations of medications to lower and raise cholesterol. And that's very important for women to know what those medications are so we can minimize side effects."
Goldberg is also chief of Women's Cardiac Care at Lenox Hill Hospital, and best-selling author of "Women Are Not Small Men: Lifesaving Strategies for Preventing and Healing Heart Disease in Women."