“After going to the hospital, I learned that I had elevated cholesterol. It was very high,” he says. “They shot me up with a clot buster and stabilized me [and] did a couple of EKGs, which confirmed that I was having a massive heart attack.”
It’s well known that high cholesterol leads to heart attacks and stroke, but, as an avid exerciser, Johnson never imagined it would be a problem for him.
While most of us think of total cholesterol, these fats are actually divided into three major segments: the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which in excess leads to buildup and clogging of arteries; the high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which helps the body eliminate bad LDL cholesterol; and the triglyceride, which stores extra calories of energy.
“The bad part is the LDL cholesterol, that’s the only one that we have graded as a risk factor for heart disease,” says Dr. Gerald Fletcher, American Heart Association spokesperson and professor of medicine in cardiovascular diseases at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Jacksonville, Fla. “The triglycerides, another not-so-good one, can go down with exercise. The HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol, can go up with exercise. The LDL, unfortunately, does not change much with exercise. It helps to some degree, but you must treat [bad LDL levels] regardless of HDL cholesterol.”
Johnson later learned it was a diet heavy in hamburgers and other fatty foods that raised his LDLs, largely contributing to his heart attack.
In addition to diet and weight loss, Fletcher says a family history of high cholesterol and heart disease can also elevate your risk. While the AHA recommends adults over 20 get tested every five years, he says families with strong histories of heart disease should get checked earlier and more often.
Johnson didn’t know his father and therefore wasn’t aware of a genetic predisposition, so as a lesson to others, he offers, “If you don’t know your DNA, treat yourself as if you are at risk, because there’s no downside to a heart healthy lifestyle.”
The other lesson Johnson draws from his heart attack is the importance of regular doctor’s visits. Prior to his heart attack, he would get a physical every two years or more. Now, the 61-year-old says he gets extensive check-ups every year. In addition, he remains physically active—even running a marathon—has given up red meat, makes sure his plate is always filled with vegetables and continues to take a daily baby aspirin and a Crestor, a cholesterol-lowering medication.
But Johnson, who later authored Heart to Heart, which details his and 11 other heart attack survivors’ paths to restored health, wants to inform others about his biggest lesson of all. “We shouldn’t wait until we’re so sick and go to the doctor and say, ‘Look I’ve done everything I can to make myself really sick, now save me.’ We can take some action now.”
Looking to lower your cholesterol? Dr. Gerald Fletcher of the American Heart Association reveals his best tips to do so.
- Cut Down on Animal Products. He says the fattest foods like beef, pork and cheese really contribute to the clogging of your blood vessels.
- Up the Fresh Fruits and Veggies. They have been scientifically linked to lowered cholesterol. Fletcher even reports that regions where fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts are abundant in the local diet and cuisine have shown lower incidence of high cholesterol.
- Try Out Fish Oils. He says some studies suggest that Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in lowering cholesterol.
- Turn to Prescription Treatments. Fletcher believes today’s prescription cholesterol medications are the most effective means of treating and controling cholesterol.