Do you have high cholesterol? Has someone in your family had early heart disease? As a cardiologist in Duluth, I see the devastating effects of untreated high cholesterol — including heart disease — on my patients and their families every day. Thousands of people in the Northland are unaware that they and their families are at risk of early heart disease, heart attacks, and even death due to high cholesterol.
Sept. 24 is Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH) Awareness Day, which was established in 2012 by the Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation to raise awareness worldwide. FH is a common genetic condition in our region that is underdiagnosed and undertreated. Approximately 1 in 200 people have this severe condition. It’s more common than multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis. But it is an “invisible” disease, as people often do not show visible signs that they have it.
Patients with FH can live longer and more productive lives now due to improved treatments. However, when nine out of 10 people do not know they have it, it is difficult to treat.
Cholesterol-related illnesses cost Minnesotans more than just our family and friends; they cost billions of dollars each year. The deaths, and their associated costs, are largely preventable.
While many people are familiar with the Go Red for Women campaign (with the little red dresses), which raises awareness of heart disease in women, no such campaign exists for FH.
The American Heart Association’s mission is to “build healthier lives free of cardiovascular disease and stroke” and has taken action to improve cardiovascular health by publishing cholesterol guidelines to help doctors best care for patients. Despite the efforts, awareness about FH in the community remains low.
When was the last time you had your cholesterol checked? The diagnosis of FH is simple. Ask your doctor for a blood test, a lipid panel. If the low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, or LDL-c, is above 190 in adults or 160 in children, FH is highly suspected. A very high cholesterol level results in a 20-fold increase in the lifetime risk of heart disease, especially in men younger than 50 and women younger than 60.
If you are diagnosed, your first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, and children) have a 50% chance of also having it and need to also be tested. Children of family members with FH should be tested and start treatment between the ages of 8 and 11.
With the new school year upon us, not only is it important for children to establish new routines and heart-healthy eating habits, it is critical for adults, too. The first-line treatment for FH is lifestyle change, including a heart-healthy diet, not smoking, and routine physical exercise. Often, however, this is not enough to lower LDL-c. In those instances, lipid-lowering medications are required.
In recognition of FH Awareness Day this month, let’s raise our voices to help everyone #KnowFH. We must use this opportunity as an urgent call to action to improve awareness and treatment and to take control of high cholesterol. It’s time to know your cholesterol numbers. Go to your doctor today to find out if you have FH.
Dr. Catherine Benziger of Duluth is a cardiologist and a member of the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology.