(LifeWire) - There are many cholesterol myths and facts out there, and with ads for heart-healthy foods in every magazine and reports about cholesterol-lowering medications on every channel, we seem almost continuously surrounded by talk of cholesterol. Yet despite all that has been learned about it, a number of stubborn misconceptions about cholesterol still persist.
Myth: As long as there's nothing else wrong with you, high cholesterol is not a big deal.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that can build up in the arteries and cause dangerous blockages. While you may feel fine and otherwise have a clean bill of health, having high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. Overall, heart disease is rivaled only by cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States. Also, heart disease doesn't necessarily trumpet its arrival: there may not be any symptoms at all -- until a heart attack.
Myth: Cholesterol is the result of poor eating and exercise habits.
While diet and exercise play an important role in determining cholesterol levels, they aren't the only factors to think about. Even if your diet is low in cholesterol, your body makes its own cholesterol and may produce more than it can effectively eliminate. Exercise and a sensible diet may not be enough to keep this under control, which is why some of the fittest people you'll ever meet take cholesterol medications.
Myth: Taking cholesterol medication means you don't have to worry about diet and exercise anymore.
Medications do help keep cholesterol under control, but they can't do it all without your help. A heart-healthy diet and good exercise habits are still the best way to prevent heart disease, whether you're on medication or not.
Myth: If you want to control cholesterol, you have to eat nothing but vegetables and oatmeal.
A heart-healthy diet can include a wide variety of options if it's well planned. Increasing the amount of fiber and keeping fat intake to a minimum can make a big difference.
Be especially careful to avoid trans fats, also referred to as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils. Though some trans fats occur naturally in animal products, specifically those from cows, sheep, goats or deer, most trans fats are synthetic products, which are now used in a wide variety of processed foods.
New FDA regulations require that nutrition labels list trans fat content, making it easier to keep track of how much you're eating. To reduce your trans fat intake, start with a small change, such as switching from butter to soft margarine (stick margarine contains more trans-fatty acids than the tub variety), and ask your doctor how you can further improve your diet.
Myth: You have to run or bike every day to meet the exercise requirements for lowering cholesterol.
Your exercise doesn't have to reach Olympic proportions to be effective. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, on most days of the week can keep you at a healthy weight and prevent cholesterol from getting out of control.
Myth: If your doctor has never mentioned cholesterol to you, you're in the clear.
Don't assume that no news is good news. Ask your doctor to give you a cholesterol test and help you understand the results. If your numbers are a concern, your doctor can help you decide what measures to take and how often to retest your cholesterol levels.
Myth: Women don't need to worry about their cholesterol; it's really a man's problem.
In young women, a high estrogen level helps to keep cholesterol in check. After menopause, though, this protection swiftly diminishes. Since cholesterol increases with age, you shouldn't wait until menopause to find out what your cholesterol is or how to control it.
Myth: Cholesterol won't be a problem until you reach the age of 40.
Even children can develop high cholesterol, so it's important to establish good diet and exercise habits early in life. Unless a doctor recommends checking it sooner, begin having your cholesterol tested early in adulthood. Retest your levels at least every five years thereafter.
"Common Misconceptions About Cholesterol." americanheart.org. 4 Apr 2008. American Heart Association. 28 Sep 2008. <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3006030>.
"Cholesterol Facts and Statistics." cdc.gov. 8 Nov 2007. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 28 Sep 2008. <http://www.cdc.gov/Cholesterol/facts.htm>.
"Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About High Blood Cholesterol." cdc.gov. 8 Nov 2007. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 28 Sep 2008. <http://www.cdc.gov/Cholesterol/faqs.htm>.