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Actor Gina Torres shares how she helped her parents manage their health after they were diagnosed with high cholesterol and how she maintains a healthy level herself. Photography by Andy Freedman
  • Primetime TV star Gina Torres shares her parents’ issues with heart health.
  • Torres is spreading awareness about “bad” cholesterol.
  • Experts share how knowing your cholesterol levels can keep your heart healthy.

Actor Gina Torres learned how to be a health advocate at a young age. Both her parents were diagnosed with high LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol that increases the risk for coronary artery disease.

“It was…years of good Cuban food taking its toll, as well as maybe not being the best advocates for themselves medically,” Torres told Healthline.

Because her parents spoke Spanish and were not fluent in English, she acted as their translator during doctor visits.

“That was a time when there weren’t that many things available like medicine to manage LDL, but more than anything, it was [helping my parents] change their lifestyle,” said Torres.

Studies show that Hispanic adults are more likely to experience major risk factors for cardiovascular disease than non-Hispanic white adults, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and emerging cardiovascular disease risk factors like hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, psychological stress, and occupational exposures.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the optimal total cholesterol level is about 150 mg/dL, while optimal LDL cholesterol is at or below 100 mg/dL. People who maintain this level have lower rates of heart disease and stroke.

However, the AHA reports that almost 50% of Mexican men and women older than 20 years have a total cholesterol level greater than 200 mg/dL, and almost 40% have a “bad” LDL cholesterol level greater than 130 mg/dL, putting them at an increased risk of developing heart disease.

“What’s tricky about ‘bad’ cholesterol is that, unlike a cold or fever, there aren’t any obvious symptoms of high LDL cholesterol. Someone could have high cholesterol and not know it,” Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, Board Chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Healthline.

High LDL can increase plaque buildup in the arteries. When there is too much plaque, it can narrow or completely block an artery, which blocks the supply of blood to parts of the heart and potentially causes a heart attack. Similarly, a blocked artery leading to the brain can cause a stroke, she explained.

“Unfortunately, many people don’t find out they have high cholesterol until they’ve already had a heart attack or stroke,” said Iroku-Malize. “That’s why it’s crucial to have cholesterol levels checked by your family physician, who can help you improve your cholesterol levels to avert these life threatening events.”

In addition to witnessing her parents navigate their heart health, Torres also lost family members to heart attacks.

“Also knowing that the Hispanic community [has] heart issues as a complication of high cholesterol…[made] me aware of what the complications of an elevated LDL-C number could mean,” she said.

These factors inspired her to prioritize her own health by consistently exercising and eating well.

“One might say that culturally, our diet is challenging at best,” said Torres. “It’s made with a lot of meat, oils, fat, salt — all the things that make life worth living. However, years and years and years of that, if there is no balance, can lead to potentially fatal high levels of LDL-C.”

She notes that even with proper diet and exercise, some people are predisposed to high cholesterol.

“So, for that it’s important to go to your doctor, get checked, know your levels so that you can get in the middle of it and take preventive measures,” she said.

To spread this message, Torres teamed up with the American Academy of Family Physicians and Amgen to launch a Public Service Announcement (PSA). The PSA calls on Hispanic men and women to know their “bad” cholesterol levels so they can take more control of their health. The PSA offers people a free kit to test their LDL levels at home.

“I have always said, and I stand by, wanting to use my platform to help my community, to help not only bring them forth from a creative standpoint but also in all ways…and help shed a light and educate in ways and themes that they may not have access to,” she said.

“This PSA was the perfect way to do that because knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better you are capable of being your best advocate.”

Seeing a doctor to help evaluate your cholesterol levels is the best place to start.

“After checking levels with a simple blood test, we can talk patients through next steps, such as how often they should get levels checked and what the numbers mean,” said Iroku-Malize.

Your doctor can help determine if high LDL cholesterol runs in your family.

“Some forms of very high cholesterol run in families, so if one individual has high cholesterol, it may be beneficial to have his or her family members screened as well,” Dr. Wesley Milks, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline.

While statin medications are the most widely used and effective medications to treat high cholesterol, he said non-statin medications, such as ezetimibe, bempedoic acid, and PCSK9 inhibitors, including evolocumab, alirocumab, and inclisiran, may also be effective in select situations.

“The decision whether to treat with medications should be made with respect not only to the level of cholesterol elevation but also with regard to an individual’s risk of heart disease, as well as personal priorities and preferences,” Milks said.

Aside from medication, there are several ways people can improve bad cholesterol levels, such as quitting smoking and aiming for 30 minutes of physical activity five to six times a week.

“Studies have shown that the benefits occur even if the physical activity is broken up into 10 minutes at a time at different parts of a day or all 150 minutes on a weekend,” Iroku-Malize said.

A healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and fiber, as well as minimizing saturated and trans fats while focusing on unsaturated fats found in fish, vegetables, grains, and tree nuts, can also help.

“Of course, we take into consideration the cultural diet of our patients to make sure it is something that can be incorporated into their lifestyle and maintained long term,” said Iroku-Malize.