Target Practice

Jack Wilson always considered himself in good shape. At 51, he had no serious health complaints. Despite carrying what he called “a healthy paunch,” he seldom took a sick day from his IT job in Ottawa, enjoyed skiing in winter and, in summer, could still compete in a robust set of tennis with his son at the local club.

All his health signs seemed normal — no cause for alarm. So he was shocked when, after a routine check-up, his doctor told him he had high cholesterol. “I had put off having a physical for years,” Jack recalls. “I was feeling good about my health and saw no reason to see a doctor.”

But his wife convinced him otherwise. “Allison reminded me that my grandfather and uncle had suffered heart attacks at my age. She felt I should go see a doctor, just to make sure everything was okay.”

And as often happens, a woman’s intuition in health matters proved correct. At the physical, the doctor told Jack that despite everything looking good, he was concerned with his waist size. Follow-up blood tests confirmed this worry: Jack’s blood cholesterol levels were dangerously high.

Jack had never paid close attention to his cholesterol. Now it was time to play catch-up.

It’s estimated that 40 per cent of Canadians live with high cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat found in the blood and every cell of the body. Up to 80 per cent of cholesterol is produced by our liver. The remaining 20 per cent comes from fatty foods we eat.

The danger arises when too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is present. Known as “bad” cholesterol, it causes a buildup of plaque, which clogs our arteries, restricting the vessels that deliver blood to the heart and brain. If these arteries become completely blocked — or ruptured — heart attack or stroke occurs.

But not all cholesterol is bad. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, actually clears the dangerous LDL from the arteries.

The key is to make healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising regularly and eating a low-fat diet, to ensure we maintain the right balance of cholesterol and don’t let LDL levels get out of control. That’s because too much cholesterol in the presence of other risk factors (such as age, family history, high blood pressure, physical inactivity) can greatly increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

Based on his age, gender and family medical history, Jack’s cholesterol levels put him in this group. That’s why, in follow-up appointments, his doctor came up with a set of cholesterol levels, target ranges which, if maintained, would help Jack get out of the danger zone. (For full information on cholesterol, cholesterol levels and health tips, go to

Each person has a different “ideal” cholesterol level. Before setting Jack’s levels, his doctor used a formula that took into account his medical history, risk factors and current health. Jack’s best chance of avoiding heart attack or stroke was to adhere to these levels. In fact, studies show that for every one per cent decrease in our cholesterol levels, there’s a two per cent decrease in the risk of heart disease.

To Jack, those numbers spoke volumes. “Once I learned about the importance of hitting these targets, everything fell into place.” A nutritionist developed a diet that reduced cholesterol intake. And he got active. Two years after that fateful checkup, Jack exercises daily, usually walking vigorously for an hour a day.

For many, lifestyle changes are not enough. If diet and exercise don’t do the trick, doctors may also prescribe medications to help patients achieve their cholesterol targets.

Jack, however, has successfully hit his cholesterol targets through diet and exercise. “The results have been fantastic,” he says. He now schedules regular appointments with his doctor to make sure he stays on track. And he’s begun pestering his two younger brothers to visit their doctors and have their cholesterol checked. “I almost left it too late. There’s no way anyone should put off having their cholesterol checked.”

Ask your doctor to check your cholesterol if you:

•  Are male (over 40 years of age).

•  Are female (over 50 years of age and/or post-menopausal).

•  Have heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.

•  Have a waist measurement greater than 102 cm (40 inches) for men or 88 cm (35 inches) for women.

•  Smoke.

•  Have a family history of heart disease or stroke.

Source: Heart and Stroke Foundation. For more information, go to

This Special Educational Feature was produced by the editors of ZOOMER magazine in association with a Canadian health-care provider.