How to manage your cholesterol levels during menopause

How to manage your cholesterol levels during the menopause

The menopause is a natural event in the lives of women occurring when levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone fall and the body stops producing eggs. The only way to decide if you are menopausal is to have a blood test to check your hormone levels, which your GP can arrange for you.

Why does the menopause affect cholesterol levels?

During menopause, the ovaries stop producing oestrogen and levels start to fall in the body causing a number of important changes. Before the menopause, when a woman gains weight she is likely to carry the excess weight in the hip and thigh area which is referred to as a ‘pear shape'. Following the menopause, women tend to gain weight around the abdominal area (central obesity) commonly referred to as an ‘apple' shape.

This shift of body fat distribution is thought to trigger increases in total cholesterol and LDL (low density lipoprotein) or ‘bad' cholesterol and a decrease in HDL (high density lipoprotein) or ‘good' cholesterol, leaving women at increased risk of developing heart problems.2 Only 34 per cent of women aged 16-24 have blood cholesterol concentrations above 5mmol/L, compared to 88 per cent of 55-64 year olds.4

Getting to the heart of the matter

The good news is that it is never too late to look after your heart! A healthy diet and lifestyle can still make a difference to women's cholesterol levels aged 45 and beyond.

Know your cholesterol level

Measuring your blood cholesterol level involves a simple blood test, so if you are over 45 years, going through or have gone through the menopause speak with your doctor who will be able to advise you.

Prevention is better than cure

As life expectancy continues to increase, women will spend a larger proportion of their lives in the post-menopausal state. For the vast majority of women, a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle is the best foundation for their long term health and well-being:

  • Eat the right fats. Cut back on saturated fat found in fatty meat, full fat dairy products and ‘hidden' in cakes and pastries
  • Check labels for low fat options (3g or less per 100g is low in fat)
  • Include foods enriched with plant stanols/sterols, which are clinically proven to lower ‘bad' LDL cholesterol as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle
  • Find a physical activity that you enjoy (gardening, walking) and aim to be active for at least 30 minutes on five or more days of the week
  • Maintain a healthy weight but avoid crash diets which do not work in the long term
  • Osteoporosis is a major health issue for older people, particularly women. It is important to include calcium rich foods (milk, cheese, yogurt and green vegetables) which help maintain healthy bones. Vitamin D is important for good bone health, which we get mostly from the skin's exposure to sunlight
  • Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • Eat at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily (choose from salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards or herring)

References:
1. United Kingdom; Estimated resident population by single year of age and sex; Mid-2006 Population Office for National Statistics, General Register.
2. Menopausematters.co.uk - an independent, clinician-led website.
3. A Royal Society of Medicine Survey, (December 2005) Digest - the magazine from Heart UK. June/July 2006.
4. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and Department of Health cholesterol guidelines.