Beyond Cholesterol: Exploring Key Factors In Cardiovascular Health

  • Cardiology
  • cardiovascular - cholesterol - Lifestyle
  • February 9, 2024

Cholesterol levels help determine good cardiovascular health. However, factors like diet, stress, activity, and sleep also play a critical role in heart health.

Heart Health Is More Than Your LDL

While cholesterol often steals the spotlight when it comes to heart health, this is just one piece of the puzzle. Explore a comprehensive landscape of factors that contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system. Discover how sleep, stress, gut health and even social connections intertwine with heart health. Prepare to expand the understanding of heart health, moving beyond a singular focus to embrace a holistic approach that increase health, beat by beat.


Key factors

The heart and blood vessels must remain healthy to live a long, active life. However, clogged arteries or damage to the heart can lead to cardiovascular disease. This condition is the leading cause of death in the United States, with 1 in every 5 cases traced back to heart health. Managing cardiovascular health is a major priority, with most people using cholesterol levels to measure heart health. If cholesterol is under control, the chance of cardiovascular disease is reduced significantly. However, factors like diet, stress, activity, and sleep also play a critical role in heart health.

The role of cholesterol

Found in every cell in the body, cholesterol is a fat-like substance necessary for hormone production, digestion, and several other vital functions. The body only needs a specific amount of cholesterol for daily operation, often produced by the liver. Additionally, certain foods can be converted to cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in the body can combine with other substances and become plaque that sticks to the walls of blood vessels, called atherosclerosis. Over time, this plaque may impact the function of critical arteries in the heart. The result is coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attacks.


Doctors measure cholesterol by checking high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. HDL carries cholesterol from the body back to the liver, while LDL leads to plaque buildup. Doctors encourage high HDL and low LDL levels for optimal health. However, research shows that even optimal HDL levels aren’t enough to prevent heart attacks or cardiovascular disease singlehandedly.

BP matters

Blood circulates through the heart and body every second and must do so optimally to maintain cardiovascular health. The heart must work harder to pump blood when an individual has high blood pressure (BP) or hypertension. In many cases, hypertension is asymptomatic and can lead to similar consequences of cardiovascular disease. While 60% of people with hypertension also have high cholesterol, both are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Both conditions can benefit from a heart-healthy diet. Avoiding excess processed foods, trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugars can help. This means opting for a diet with more whole foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

The heart wants you to move

An active heart is a healthy heart. Being physically active is a crucial factor in cardiovascular health. Moderate activity can improve the heart’s ability to pump blood, improve oxygen levels, and increase muscle strength. Additionally, staying active reduces the chance of heart disease. Despite these factors, many adults are not engaging in regular physical activity, with 1 in 4 mainly sedentary. A lack of movement reduces the heart’s function and increases the chances of other poor lifestyle choices.

Stress and the heart

With packed schedules and daily responsibilities, stress is a natural part of life for most adults. Yet, constant stress can be detrimental to long-term health. Consistently high levels of stress spike hormones such as cortisol. High cortisol levels prompt the body to produce more cholesterol and increase blood pressure. Over time, such bodily changes can lead to decreased cardiovascular health. Stress also increases inflammation, which damages blood vessels and may lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking and alcohol consumption. Studies show that smoking damages blood vessels and significantly increases the risk of heart disease. For many people, stress is here to stay, so adopt relaxation methods like meditation and yoga or consider talk therapy to keep cortisol low.

Are you getting enough sleep?

A good night’s sleep can be the life hack to improving cardiovascular health. Sleep deprivation can harm the heart, reducing function and creating chronic inflammation. Not enough sleep can lead to increased cholesterol and poor cardiovascular health. People with insomnia are also more likely to be sedentary during the day, have poor diets, or have sleep apnea, all of which contribute to heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. If sleeping is challenging, consider seeing a specialist.

Look beyond cholesterol

High cholesterol levels are a good indicator of poor cardiovascular health. Yet, depending on these numbers alone can cause individuals to overlook the many other factors impacting the heart. Remember, a person can have moderately good cholesterol levels but still be at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Diet, exercise, sleep, and unhealthy lifestyle choices all lead to poor heart health. Prevention is better than cure, and even small changes can help with long-term heart health.

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