Women under age 45 are four times more likely to know how much they weighed in high school than they are to know their cholesterol number, according to the results of a national survey released Aug. 21 by the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.
More than half (56.8 percent) of the 18- to 44-year-old women surveyed are concerned that high cholesterol will be a health concern during their lifetime, and almost half (48 percent) are actively trying to manage their cholesterol, yet only 21.1 percent know their cholesterol level. Only half (51.7 percent) of the women surveyed had ever had a cholesterol test, and one quarter (25.9 percent) did not know how cholesterol is tested.
"Heart disease is a serious threat to women. The fact that only one in five women surveyed knew their cholesterol level shows how much work remains to be done," said Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research. "You can't wait until mid-life or later to monitor and manage your cholesterol level, which is a major risk factor for heart disease in both women and men."
Data from the survey suggests a major disconnect between women's concern about high cholesterol and heart disease and efforts to monitor and control it. These findings are part of a general trend in women of all ages, indicating a poor understanding of cholesterol.
Though heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, younger women continue to believe breast cancer is a more serious threat. Less than half (46.9 percent) of respondents were worried about heart disease, while 58.3 percent were worried about breast cancer, a disease that affects far fewer women. Half of respondents (50.7 percent) were surprised to learn that heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer.
Further demonstrating the lack of cholesterol knowledge, half of the women surveyed (49.5 percent) incorrectly identified HDL as "bad" cholesterol, and 38.2 percent believed that blood pressure is a factor that makes up a person's cholesterol level. A similar number of women (35.9 percent) were surprised to learn that dangerous cholesterol levels can affect people who exercise and eat a healthy diet, which indicates a low awareness that genetics play a significant role in determining a person's cholesterol.
"Clearly, we've got a long way to go in educating women from their college years to their mid-40s about the risks of high cholesterol and the importance of tracking cholesterol throughout adulthood," Greenberger said. "Knowing your cholesterol number is the first step in managing cholesterol. That number is certainly more important than what you weighed in high school."
The survey showed that two in 10 (21.4 percent) were surprised that cholesterol can harden the arteries and lead to heart attack or stroke, and more than four in 10 (44.3 percent) did not know that high cholesterol has no symptoms.
As for ways to help control cholesterol, nearly all young women (97.7 percent) understood that exercise can play a part in fighting high cholesterol, and just about as many women knew that eating more fruits and vegetables (93.1 percent) and eating foods low in fat (91.7 percent) can also contribute to better heart health. However, nearly a quarter of women (24.0 percent) did not know that quitting smoking could help control cholesterol. In addition, 92.6 percent of women surveyed knew that there are medicines called statins available to help lower cholesterol if diet and exercise are not effective.
The results of the telephone survey of 524 women, conducted by GfK Custom Research North America June 29 to July 1, also showed that among respondents between the ages of 18 and 44:
• Only 13.9 percent knew their LDL (bad) cholesterol level
• Only 12 percent knew their HDL (good) cholesterol level
• Almost three quarters (74.3 percent) did not know their total cholesterol level, LDL level, HDL level, or triglyceride (blood fat) level
• 44 percent were surprised that cholesterol levels naturally increase with age
• 42.5 percent knew that atherosclerosis is hardening of the arteries, while 37.9 percent thought it was loss of bone density and 23 percent thought it was curvature of the spine.
Important information about cholesterol
• More than 90 million American adults, or about 50 percent, have elevated blood cholesterol levels, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's National Cholesterol Education Program. High cholesterol can lead to heart disease, heart attack, angina or stroke.
• The American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute both recommend that all people age 20 or older should have cholesterol measured at least once every five years. Cholesterol is measured with a blood test.
• People get cholesterol in two ways. The body produces cholesterol and foods can contain cholesterol. A person's total cholesterol number is made up of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high-density lipoproteins (HDL), and triglycerides, another fatty substance. A desirable level of total cholesterol is less than 200.
• LDL, known as the "bad" cholesterol, deposits itself on the inside of the vessels to make plaques. Elevated levels of LDL increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. An optimal level of LDL is less than 100.
• HDL is called the "good" cholesterol because a high HDL level decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease. For women, an HDL less than 50 is considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.