Secret killer on the loose in Vietnam, doctors warn

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A stroke patient is examined in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo courtesy of Tiep Thi & Gia Dinh Newspaper

Surveys have revealed an increase in bad cholesterol levels among the Vietnamese population, prompting doctors to call for increased awareness and alertness about the silent killer.

Doctor Le Bach Mai, deputy head of the National Nutrition Institute, said it is very hard to recognize the first signs of high cholesterol, or cholesterol disorder, and the condition is thus named "the most silent killer."

"It strikes us very secretly. Only when we feel fatigue and chest pains that we know we have developed myocardial infarction (or heart attacks)," Mai said in a report by news website VnExpress.

"Thus, it's extremely important to proactively stay away from the condition."

Excessive cholesterol forms plaques to narrow or block arteries, and thus cause fatal complications including cardiovascular diseases (CVD) which is the number one cause of death globally and causing one third of all deaths according to the World Health Organization.

It is the cause of heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, myocardial ischemia which is the limitation of blood flow to the heart muscles, gallstones, pancreatic inflammation, kidney decline and blindness (when blood flow to the eyes is blocked).

High blood cholesterol in Vietnam could actually push heart disease to replace cancer as the most fatal disease in the country, experts say, citing recent statistics.

A source from the Vietnam Stroke Association said 200,000 Vietnamese suffer strokes due to high blood cholesterol every year.

Mai said high cholesterol is associated with at least half of the fatal strokes or cardiovascular cases, and it is even more dangerous when coupled with high blood pressure.

A recent survey by Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Center covering more than 700 people from 30 to 69 years of age found abnormal cholesterol levels, mostly high, in 77.8 percent.

The National Nutrition Institute released results of a bigger survey in 2010, which was conducted on more than 4,800 people across the country. This found more than 29 percent of adults suffered from high cholesterol. The rate in urban areas was 44.3 percent.

The ratio of young people (in the 25-34 age range) suffering high cholesterol has doubled from 18 percent ten years ago, it found.

Nguyen Thanh Hai, head of the health examination department at People's Hospital 115, a leading public hospital for emergency cases in HCMC, said in a Tien Phong report that the hospital received around 900 people coming for cholesterol tests every day.

"Almost all of them have high cholesterol, some as high as more than 350 mg/dl," Hai said, noting that a level lower than 200 mg/dl is considered safe.

About 75 percent of the blood cholesterol is produced by one's liver and other cells in the body while the other 25 percent comes from animal food products, Hai said.

High cholesterol, as a result, is usually caused by an unbalanced diet that weighs heavily on the side of fat and protein inputs than vegetables.

Mai said the condition is thus worse in urban than rural areas, as people in cities usually dine out more often, consuming more fat and high-protein dishes than green ones.

Dining out also involves drinking more beer and alcohol, she said.

"The rate of people having high cholesterol among the dining-out group is double that of those who don't."

Constant stress from the industrial lifestyle is also a cause, doctors say. They say that the key to keeping cholesterol levels normal is to adapt a healthy diet and lifestyle with no tobacco and limited alcoholic beverage.

When high blood cholesterol levels are found, the patient is usually prescribed medication.

But diet changes can work well as a non-drug therapy, doctors say, advising that patients need to stay away from foods that are rich in cholesterol such as animal's internal organs and brain, or at least limit their amount to one third of daily fat portion, and keep a limit of three eggs a week.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, and green tea are highly recommended, not to mention regular exercises of at least half an hour each time, three times a week.

They say medication is only called for when blood cholesterol levels still fail to return to normal after adopting such healthy lifestyle for six months.

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