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Posted: October 5, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Learning new things at the doctor

I felt rather apprehensive when I walked into the doctor's office last week. It was a return visit to discuss the results of recent blood work. I didn't fear news of anything truly terrible, like cancer, but I wondered if my poor lifestyle choices had caught up with me yet.

I'm over 40 now and have to start thinking about this stuff even if doing so makes me feel like an old lady. Better to face the facts than be a walking time-bomb and not realize it. We're so totally surrounded, bombarded even, with health information overload these days. If you get sucked into the vortex created by television doctors, drug commercials and late-night diet infomercials, you end up feeling like you're facing certain sudden death if you don't start juicing all your vegetables, hiking 10 miles a day and going gluten-free.

Since I do none of that, I worried a bit over what my blood work would reveal. Would 25 years of carrying around too many pounds have pushed me into diabetes? Would too many nibbles of the kids' leftover French fries and not enough exercise have ruined my always-good cholesterol levels? I just didn't know. Being a big girl, I always expect the weight lecture. This time, though, I was in for a nice surprise.

"Your blood work looks really good," he said, flipping through my chart. "Blood sugar is nice, your thyroid is great, all your cholesterol levels are right where we like to see them."

I exhaled, and smiled, and felt rather proud of myself, actually. Maybe I'm not as hell-bent on destroying my health as it might appear to some.

"It all looks really good, except for this number, which we like to see below 1,000." And that's when I learned about a new addition to the standard cholesterol profile that might help save lives. He went on to explain that this new test measures the size of a person's cholesterol particles. Even though my HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels were all normal, the cholesterol I do have is a dangerous, small-particle variety. He said that doctors now believe this small-particle, or type B cholesterol, is largely responsible for the sudden heart attacks, strokes and deaths that occur in people who otherwise seem at low risk for heart disease.

These small particles are deadly because they slip easily into the spaces between cells in the arteries to form plaques, and they oxidize faster than bigger, fluffy cholesterol particles that drift along easily through the bloodstream.

Why am I risking boring you to tears by prattling on about cholesterol like your hypochondriac old Aunt Bertha? Because I'd never heard of this test before, and I'm guessing that most of you probably haven't, either. Not all physicians routinely test for cholesterol particle size, so it's worth asking your doctor to include it the next time you go for a physical. It scares me to think there could be thousands more like me, reassured by normal cholesterol levels, but at risk for sudden death or permanent disability by something they didn't even know to be tested for.

Even my mom had never heard of it, which is rather odd considering that she could preside over the Dr. Oz Fan Club and is usually up-to-date on any new medical advice. Because cholesterol particle size is largely genetically inherited, I'm now bugging her, my dad and my sisters to get tested as well.

If you listen to WSB Radio at all, you probably remember when radio personality Royal Marshall died unexpectedly last January. He was 43, described as fit and healthy, but dropped dead at home of a sudden heart attack. I don't know for certain that cholesterol particle size played a role in his death, but from what I've learned in recent days, it sounds like it could've been a factor. And 43 is far too young to die from cardiac arrest.

Lifestyle modifications can help change some of these dangerous small particles into the larger, safer ones, so I still have to lay off the fries and get my butt off the couch to exercise more often. Of course, that's good advice for anyone.


Kari may be reached at kari@kariapted.com.

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