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These sobering statistics have been around for decades. In recent years, women have become aware of the dangers of heart disease and some even realize that heart disease presents different symptoms in women than in men. Women are more likely than men to have "atypical" symptoms like fatigue or numbness rather than the classic chest pain of a heart attack. This can lead to delayed or even missed diagnosis.

Myths die hard. Society likes to believe that women are far less likely to have heart disease than men. National health statistics indicate over the past decade more women than men have died of heart disease, and the trend seems to be worsening.

You've probably heard the current medical theory that cholesterol is the "bad guy" in the world of heart disease. That's true and not true.

Please allow me to put on my professor hat for a few paragraphs and explain to you what cholesterol is and how too much of the wrong kinds of cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease. I promise it won't be too painful!

Cholesterol is not a bad thing. In fact, this waxy substance produced by the liver is vital to life and is present normally in all cells of the body. Cholesterol is essential for proper metabolism and necessary for the production of hormones and of bile acids that aid in digestion. It's found in animal-based foods like meat, fi sh, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

When your cholesterol levels are too high, some of the cholesterol is deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. If you think of your blood vessels as resembling plumbing pipes, you can imagine what happens when those deposits build up over time: they close off and the heart is deprived of its blood (and oxygen) supply, causing a heart attack.

There are two main types of cholesterol that we measure to determine your risk of a heart attack. One is LDL, which stands for low density lipoprotein, and it is often typifi ed as "bad" cholesterol because it is associated with the deposits that plug up arteries. The other is HDL or high density lipoprotein, often called "good" cholesterol because it is associated with the process of clearing deposits out of the artery walls. So clearly the key is to have lower LDL and higher HDL levels.

Your doctor has no doubt tested your cholesterol levels and let you know your numbers. If not, get a cholesterol test now. It's a simple blood test that you can get through your doctor or a wide variety of health clinics.

You're aiming for total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL and an LDL cholesterol level of less than 130mg/dl (LDL should be even lower, less than 100mg/dl, if you have any history of diabetes or heart disease). Your doctor will be looking at these numbers and your HDL cholesterol level. You want your HDL to be 45 mg/dL or more, the higher the better. In addition to the individual numbers, most doctors look for a healthy ratio between your HDL number and your LDL cholesterol and your total cholesterol. A ratio of 3 to 1 LDL/HDL or 5 to 1 total cholesterol/HDL is generally considered a healthy goal. For example, if your total cholesterol is 225mg/dl then a healthy HDL level would be anything above 45mg/dl (5 x 45 = 225). Similarly, if your LDL is 135 a healthy HDL level would be anything above 45mg/dl (3 x 45 = 135)

It's important to know your numbers and what they mean. However, I think it's even more important that you understand what you can do to keep your cholesterol levels where you want them. You've heard it before. Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise.

Diet and exercise are important. Limiting your intake of cholesterol-raising animal products and trans-fatty acids (vegetable oils that have been partially hydrogenated) and getting at least 30 minutes (latest recommendations are 90 min/day) of aerobic exercise daily will go a long way toward keeping your cholesterol levels where you want them and your heart healthy.

But now there's an additional way to help keep your arteries clear and your heart strong. You can just drink your juice, eat your margarine, salad dressing, cheese, cereal, and granola bars.

How's that?

Well, there is a small catch. You have to consume the right juice, margarine, cheese and granola bars.

The health industry has recently been revolutionized by a new generation of cholesterol-lowering foods containing CoroWise® plant sterols that help lower cholesterol.

Sorry, I need to put my professor hat back on briefly to explain what plant sterols are and how they help you.

Plant sterols, also called phytosterols, are found in all plants. The best dietary sources of plant sterols are vegetables, seeds and nuts. Because plant sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol molecules, they are able to block the absorption of cholesterol from the gut into the blood stream. The plant sterols not only block absorption of the cholesterol in the foods that you like to eat, they also block the reabsorption of the cholesterol in the bile from the liver. That is quite significant since the cholesterol in the bile is actually 4 to 5 times more than the cholesterol in your diet. This ends up lowering the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood.

The 50 years of scientific proof behind the benefits of plant sterols is so strong that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

allows products containing the appropriate amount of plant sterols to carry a heart healthy claim on their labels.

The National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health recommends plant sterols to lower cholesterol.

If you've been told your cholesterol is high, science suggests you can reasonably expect to lower your cholesterol 5 to 15% in as little as two weeks with no side effects whatsoever. If your cholesterol was 225 (on the borderline where many doctors would want to consider drug treatment), research suggests you could be at 192 in as little as two weeks.

Even though all plants contain plant sterols, they are not in sufficient quantity in the typical American diet to have a significant impact on cholesterol levels. Thus to get these benefits to your cholesterol, it is important to supplement your diet. One way to do this is to look for foods with a label that says "enriched with plant sterols." You'll be doing your heart a favor.

For more information regarding these unique plant sterols and foods that contain them, you can visit

Eat two servings a day, which will give you a total of 0.8 grams of plant sterols, and keep your diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and—voila!—your cholesterol may begin to drop.

There are many new foods enriched with CoroWise® plant sterols that can be found at you local grocery store. Just look for the CoroWise® plant sterols logo. They can be found in orange juice, cheese, cereal, instant oatmeal, dairy substitutes, granola bars, and will soon be in many more healthy foods.

Plant sterols are not a magic bullet. You do need to eat a healthy diet for all of this to work. This includes eating lots of high-fiber, low fat foods like oatmeal, fruit, vegetables and lowering your intake of animal fats, trans-fats, and fried foods. Eat more fish, nuts and mono-unsaturated vegetable oils (olive oil, canola oil) – all sources of good heart healthy fats.

And get out from behind your desk or off the couch at least five times a week (if not every day) for a brisk walk, a bike ride or a game of tennis with friends. Exercise is the underpinning of any healthy lifestyle.

And if you're curious about your risk of having a heart attack in the next ten years, go to the National Institutes of Health website:

It's never too late to change your lifestyle and lengthen your life!

Dr. Joseph Keenan is a Professor in the Department of Family Practice and Community Health. Dr. Keenan is involved in clinical research in preventative cardiology using dietary modifications and medication to alter dyslipidemia and hypertension. One of his recent studies was the Pantene Vitamin Study, which used high doses of Pantene to raise HDL, and lower cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. Another study examines the "Dash Diet," or the blood pressure-lowering effects of hydrolyzed milk whey protein. Dr. Keenan is also working with Beta glucans from barley in a soluble fiber study to determine their effect on cholesterol levels and the Metabolic Syndrome. Dr. Keenan is currently on sabbatical.

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