We all know that elevated cholesterol is an indicator of heart disease risk, but the truth is most of us have no idea what our cholesterol data tells us. Even if you’ve been a good steward of your heart health and have your cholesterol checked regularly, most doctors only tell you the basic results of your blood tests — and that doesn’t tell the whole picture.
You probably know your total cholesterol level, and perhaps you even know that the Centers for Disease Control and other medical experts suggest your total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL. This common wisdom also suggests that your LDL (“bad” cholesterol) should be less than 100 mg/dL, your HDL (“good” cholesterol) should be 40 mg/dL or higher and your triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dL.
Too often we look at our total cholesterol number and if it’s under 200 we figure we’re fine. Unfortunately, I can tell you hundreds of stories about seemingly “healthy” people who had cholesterol levels under 200 and still had a heart attack. Myself included.
So if these numbers don’t tell the whole picture, what’s a better indicator of your cholesterol-related health? Well, a study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that those people with the highest triglyceride-to-HDL cholesterol ratios had a sixteen times greater risk of heart disease than those with the lowest ratios.
Why? It turns out not all LDL cholesterol is the same, so just knowing your LDL number doesn’t tell you much. In fact, LDL particle size is a much better predictor of heart disease. Some LDLs are large and fluffy while other LDLs are small and sticky. The small sticky cholesterol plays a more critical role in determining your cardiovascular health and it turns out a higher triglyceride to HDL ratio is more indicative of small sticky LDL.
The triglyceride to HDL ratio also indirectly measures insulin resistance, and that is a predictor of diabetes — and diabetes is also a major risk factor for heart disease.
Ideally, you want no more than a 2:1 ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol. So, if your triglycerides are 100 mg/dl, your HDL cholesterol should be 50 mg/dl. — Dr. Stephen Sinatra, cardiologist
It turns out a better strategy for lowering your risk for heart disease is to lower your triglycerides and/or raise your HDL. Ironically, the first line of defense for elevated cholesterol recommended by most cardiologists is a statin to lower your LDL. But statins don’t affect your triglycerides to HDL ratio.
It’s also possible to get a newer type of blood test that measures particle size. The Vertical Auto Profile (VAP) test or a similar test is available at most labs and can give you a sense of whether you are one of the unlucky ones who create small sticky (known as pattern B) cholesterol. Here’s a pretty good explanation of why VAP is better. The site suggests the standard cholesterol test fails to identify as many as 60% of people who are at risk for cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol is much more complicated than a single number. Don’t let that total cholesterol number fool you into complacency. If you have other risk factors (like diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, family history of heart disease) you shouldn’t assume your total cholesterol number or even your LDL number means you’re safe. Check out your triglycerides to HDL ratio and ask your doctor for an advanced cholesterol test.
Oh, and as I’ve mentioned before, if you have these risk factors you might consider having a coronary artery scan as well.