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The Other Half of the Heart Equation

Good cholesterol not only wards off heart disease but it also keeps the brain in top form.

Some 54 million Americans are battling to maintain a healthy heart with one hand tied behind their back.

That's the number of people with low HDL cholesterol levels, which puts them at risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

While many Americans know that cholesterol comes in two varieties—so-called "good" and "bad"—LDL cholesterol, the kind that hardens the arteries and causes heart disease, gets most of the attention in the doctor's office. However, if physicians reminded their patients of ways to boost healthy dietary fat, more progress could be made in the fight against heart disease, according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine .

Good cholesterol, or HDL, is manufactured from polyunsaturated fats found abundantly in olive and canola oils, nuts and coldwater fish such as salmon. These healthy fats lower LDL cholesterol levels by preventing fat from collecting on the inner linings of the arteries, where it can block blood flow. Other diet and lifestyle changes can help raise HDL levels as well.

The lesson is that some fat is good, says Krista Varady, a cholesterol researcher at McGill University. Healthy fats not only ward off heart disease, but they also keep the brain in top form and ensure that the body's cell membranes are operating smoothly.

Keep tabs on both HDL and LDL cholesterol, advises Roger Blumenthal, director of the Heart Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Doing both is especially important for people who have had a heart attack already, or who have had angioplasty surgery to widen arteries. HDL cholesterol can prevent blood vessels from re-narrowing, which can halt further damage to the heart.

Is your number up?

Many lifestyle factors can affect HDL, or "good" cholesterol. Here's how to bump up that number.

  • Get your vitamin B3. Proper niacin intake can raise HDL by 20 to 35 percent. Diabetics should use niacin supplements with caution.
  • If you are overweight, lose weight, even if just a few pounds. A loss of two or three pounds can raise HDL levels.
  • A brisk walk four times a week can increase good cholesterol 3 to 9 percent.
  • Quit smoking. Ditching the cigarettes can raise good cholesterol levels, especially in women.
  • Limit processed carbohydrates. Whole grains increase HDL levels.
  • Drink red wine once a day—but just one glass. Otherwise don't drink at all.