Life insurance companies know a surprising secret about cholesterol that most doctors never tell patients: When it comes to rating your risk for a fatal heart attack, the least important cholesterol number is your level of LDL (bad) cholesterol. In fact, life insurance actuaries don’t even look at LDL levels, because large studies show it’s the worst predictor of heart attack risk. Instead, life insurance companies use a simple math formula to rate your heart attack risk: They divide your total cholesterol by the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. If the ratio is below three, and there’s no inflammation in your arteries, you’re practically bulletproof against heart attacks and strokes, even if your LDL is high.
Here’s a look at 5 common cholesterol myths:
Myth: Cholesterol is inherently evil.
Fact: You couldn’t survive without cholesterol, since this waxy substance produced by the liver plays many essential roles in our body, from waterproofing cell membranes to helping produce vitamin D, bile acids that help you digest fat, and sex hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
Cholesterol is ferried through your body by molecular “submarines” called lipoproteins, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Myth: Low cholesterol is always a sign of good health.
Fact: Although low levels of LDL cholesterol are usually healthy, a new study reports that people who develop cancer typically have lower LDL in the years prior to diagnosis than those who don’t get cancer. Researchers compared 201 cancer patients to 402 control patients without cancer, matched by such factors as age, gender, smoking, blood pressure, diabetes, and body mass index. None of the patients had taken statins. Thirteen earlier randomized clinical trials of statin therapy also found a link between low LDL and cancer, causing medical concerns that statins raise cancer risk.
Myth: Triglycerides trigger heart disease.
Fact: Triglycerides, a type of blood fat, do not invade the artery wall and form plaque. However, high triglycerides mark another huge problem: insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic condition that is the root cause of 70 percent of heart attacks.
Myth: Eggs clogs up arteries.
Fact: It’s true that eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, with upwards of 200 mg, mainly in the yolk. Research shows, however, that eating three or more eggs a day boosts blood concentrations of both good and bad cholesterol. The LDL particles tend to be the light, fluffy ones that are least likely to enter the arterial wall, while the increased HDL helps keep the arteries clean, suggesting that most people’s bodies handle cholesterol from eggs in a way that’s unlikely to harm the heart. The researchers say that their findings add to growing evidence that eggs are not “a dietary evil.”
Myth: There are no visible symptoms of high cholesterol.
Fact: People with high cholesterol often develop yellowish-red bumps called “xanthomas” that can occur on the eyelids, joints, hands, or other parts of the body.