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Statins: unblocking traffic to your heart

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When it comes to cholesterol, there are two important numbers everyone should know. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad kind of cholesterol that sticks to the walls of the arteries. High density lipoprotein (HDL) is the good cholesterol. "HDL is good because it takes the LDL from your blood and returns it to the liver for processing," explains Richard Levine, MD, Virtua family physician.

How do statins work?
In order to lower cholesterol levels, you first have to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream. And statins are like having a police escort on the highway to block any more traffic, or cholesterol, from entering. "When your body stops producing cholesterol, it uses what's already in the body, lowering LDL," says Thomas Galski, DO, Virtua cardiologist.

Statins also stabilize plaque in the arteries, reducing the chance of it breaking off and traveling through the arteries. "Depending on where it accumulates, plaque can cause blockages that can have minor implications or life-threatening consequences," says Dr. Galski. Treating blockages can be anything from a minimally invasive catheterization to major bypass surgery.

Recent studies also suggest that statins reduce inflammation in the arteries, an indicator for heart attack and stroke. Other medications, such as niacin, and supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, may help lower cholesterol, but they don't reduce inflammation like statins do.

Are statins right for me?
Both Drs. Levine and Galski agree that it's important to talk to your doctor to develop a plan that's right for you. "What might be a healthy cholesterol level for you may not be for your spouse. That's why it's important to discuss your medical history with your family physician," says Dr. Levine. Statins, used in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, can keep you healthy and your cholesterol low.