Cholesterol: the silent killer
A routine test showed Lisburn woman Rosemary Cross had a hidden threat to her well-being
It was after the shattering loss of her 33-year-old son to cancer three years ago that Rosemary Cross decided that she and her family should have a health screen. The 63-year-old Lisburn grandmother who doesn't drink or smoke and who considered her lifestyle as fairly healthy was shocked to discover that she and her two daughters had high cholesterol.
Rosemary had no idea that high cholesterol could put her and her girls at risk of heart disease and stroke as over time, it can cause narrowing of the blood vessels.
According to the Department of Health, these circulatory conditions accounted for almost a third of all deaths in Northern Ireland in the last year – and they're not the sole province of the chain-smoking, fry-eating, obese male; in fact, during 2012, stroke killed more women here than men.
Ahead of World Stroke Day on October 29, Rosemary hopes her experience will serve as a timely reminder to people to keep a check on their cholesterol levels.
Stroke is the most common cause of death in Europe. In Northern Ireland 4,000 people have strokes every year – that's 12 every day.
One in six of us will have a stroke in our lifetimes so it is vital that everyone knows about stroke. Stroke, contrary to common belief, can happen to anyone, of any age. It happens suddenly and without warning.
High cholesterol is a common cause. Cholesterol is a rather unpleasant sticky yellow substance, manufactured by the body from the foods we eat, mainly the saturated fats from animals.
Cholesterol is vital for a range of functions in the body including metabolism, production of hormones and cardiovascular health.
But it is when levels rise that it becomes a problem, furring up the blood vessels. Rosemary didn't know just how high her cholesterol was, until her health check. She says: "I had my health profiled as part of a corporate package through my ex-husband's business, Delta Packaging.
"I honestly didn't think anything was wrong with me. I wasn't entirely happy with my weight, but show me a woman who is? I keep active – running after the grandchildren – and I eat quite healthily, so I thought I was ok.
"A safe level is anything up to five and mine was off the scale at 9.4. Two of my children Sinead (32) and Lisa (35) also had high readings. Sinead's was 6.7 and Lisa's was 7.2. Thankfully my son Patrick (38) who keeps fit was ok. His was 5.
"We have all started to exercise and cut out fatty foods to try to bring our cholesterol levels down."
Rosemary would never have dreamed of having her cholesterol tested but for the traumatic experience of losing her 33-year-old son David to skin cancer three years ago.
David had attended the doctor with a spot on his head which was initially diagnosed as a wart.
However when it started to spread his family nagged him into going back to his doctor.
He had a biopsy and in February 2008 was told that he had an aggressive form of nodular melanoma which was terminal.
A director in the family business, he was due to marry that May and thought he had his whole life in front of him.
It was a cruel blow which Rosemary said he fought every step of the way, losing his brave battle 18 months after his diagnosis.
David sought alternative treatments in China and America to try and fight the disease.
He was in Del Mar in California when his condition started to really deteriorate.
His entire family, including aunts and uncles, flew out to be with him on September 18 and remained by his bedside until he passed away on October 28, 2010.
His mum says: "David didn't want to die. He went to America and China to get treatment and he went ahead and got married.
"He fought to the end.
"He was told it was terminal and was offered treatment here but he researched it and discovered it can make you very sick so he researched other treatments.
"He went to China for Gamma Knife Radiation and then to American for alternative medicine treatment.
"They did seem to work and his cancer went but then it came back in his lungs and bowel and in August of the year he died, he went back to America for more treatment but unfortunately he started to deteriorate.
"We flew out as a family knowing that he couldn't survive but we still had some hope.
"We never left him and we were all around his bed when he passed away."
"His father and I were just completely devastated and we still are. It's just the wrong order of events that your son should die before you.
"He never got to live his dreams and have children.
"That's really why we went as a family to Randox Health to get screened because we decided we needed to find out if we were all okay."
It took just one simple blood test for the medics at Randox Health to discover that Rosemary and her two girls had high cholesterol.
"The results were a real wake-up call," says Rosemary, who immediately decided to take action.
"I wanted to change this, to reduce my risk of stroke and heart disease so I can be around for my grandchildren, so I went straight to my doctor.
"I have never smoked and I don't really drink – maybe now and again I will have one glass of wine to be sociable but drink always made me sick and I don't see the point of drinking if it doesn't make you feel good.
"My weaknesses were probably butter and having a cup of tea with cake or biscuits.
"I was never a big chip eater and I would cook fresh meals.
"I've cut out the cake and biscuits and if I have to have a biscuit, I have a small plain one.
"I'm eating a lot of oily fish and chicken.
"I've started to eat porridge with water or almond milk and nuts in the mornings.
"I'm also taking apple cider vinegar which I have been told is good and eating walnuts and hazelnuts.
"I'm drinking a lot more water and got myself a water machine and every time I pass it I pour myself a wee glass and drink it."
Her two daughters have also adopted a healthier diet and are as determined as Rosemary to get their cholesterol levels down.
Their GP has advised them to try and control it first with diet rather than medication.
After three months of a low fat diet they will then be tested to see if their new healthier lifestyle has had an impact in controlling their cholesterol levels.
The family have also been told that there is a chance it could be genetic although there is no history of heart disease or stroke in the family.
Rosemary's new diet has seen her weight drop from 10 stone 10lb to 10 stone 6lbs and she is aiming to slim down to around 9 stone 12lbs.
Naturally, she is concerned about her daughters.
"They do eat healthily and they don't smoke which is good. They would be a bit like me in that they would have a bit of a sweet tooth," she says.
"They are determined to try and get their cholesterol down too, as they don't want it to keep rising and become as high as mine.
"We were all really shocked by the results but we have had a lot of stress in our lives in the last few years with losing David and I'm not sure if that has anything to do with it. My oldest son Patrick went on the internet to see if there was any natural supplement that would help.
"He found Ateronon which is a tomato-based supplement with lots of lycopene in it which is supposed to tackle high cholesterol.
"I bought it for all of us and we take it every morning.
"We don't know if it is having an effect but at least it couldn't be doing us any harm.
"You do get fed up eating chicken and fish all the time, and it is hard when you are out for a meal, but we've had the warning so there is no choice but to stick at it."
Rosemary added: "I try to settle myself. You can't go about worrying about it.
"The thing about it is there is no pain and no symptoms, nothing to say you have a high cholesterol level, so it really is very important that people do get tested for it."
Keeping cholesterol in check
Cholesterol is an important substance that's used by the body in many ways.
It's the starting point of manufacture for many of the body's natural steroid hormones and for vitamin D, which controls calcium in the body.
It is also an essential component of the membrane that forms the walls of individual cells in all tissues.
Every adult should have their cholesterol measured at least once when they are in their thirties, and then every five years.
This is particularly important if you have other major risk factors for coronary disease, such as smoking or diabetes.
Cholesterol is easily measured in a blood sample.
If high cholesterol runs in your family, it's better to measure cholesterol at a much younger age – some time in your twenties.
Cholesterol levels don't tend to fluctuate, so if you have a normal level it doesn't need to be repeated often, but should be rechecked at least every five years, or more often if you develop diabetes or high blood pressure.
Cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles (mmol) per litre (L) of blood.
Anything below 5.2 is considered healthy while between 5.2 and 6.2 is borderline and above 6.2 is high.
Most cholesterol in the body is produced in the liver. This means a low cholesterol diet only has a small effect on levels.
The most effective diet to reduce cholesterol is a weight reducing diet rather than one which is primarily low in cholesterol.
Excess increases cholesterol, so total weekly alcohol should be quite modest, certainly no more than 14 units/week for woman, and 21 units/week for men.
There is no single cause for high cholesterol but contributing factors include:
Eating foods that are high in saturated fat
Lack of physical exercise.
High alcohol intake or kidney or liver disease.
Saturated fat can be found in foods that come from animals such as beef, pork, veal, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese.
Packaged foods that contain coconut oil, palm oil, or cocoa butter may have a lot of saturated fat.
Other foods toavoid are most cookies, crackers, chips (above), and other snacks.
Taking the test
Randox is a global market leader within the in vitro diagnostics industry.
The company develops innovative diagnostic solutions for hospitals, clinical, research and molecular labs, food testing, forensic toxicology, veterinary labs and life sciences.
During the month of October, Randox Health is offering a full range of cholesterol checks for just £49.
You can book by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 087 0010 0010.