February is American Heart Month, an annual heart disease awareness initiative sponsored by the American Heart Association that is designed to educate the public about the lifestyle choices and behaviors that contribute to the development of heart disease. In particular, high cholesterol levels are to blame for a wealth of potential cardiac health issues, but many are unaware that their flexible spending account (FSA) can play a role in bringing cholesterol numbers back down to healthy levels.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that naturally occurs in the body, which plays a role in the production of hormones, vitamin D and other substances that help us digest foods. Additionally, cholesterol is found in the foods that we eat, primary those that are derived from animal products like eggs, liver, fish, butter, shellfish, shrimp, bacon, sausage, red meat and cheese. LDL and HDL levels, as well as one fifth of your triglyceride (the amount of fat in the blood) level, make up your total cholesterol count.
However, cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood, rather it is carried by particles called lipoproteins, molecules that are made of fat and proteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells. These are split into two major categories, HDL and LDL cholesterol.
LDL cholesterol is the type that you want to avoid. LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, contributes to the thick deposits of plaque that can build up along the walls of arteries in a process called atherosclerosis. If this is allowed to progress, clots can form that can result in heart attacks, strokes and many other health problems.
HDL cholesterol is often considered to be the "good" type of cholesterol that counteracts the effects of LDL by helping to clear it from the arteries. HDL can carry this LDL away from the arteries and into the liver where it is broken down and flushed from the body. As such, having high HDL levels will reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
How can an FSA help lower my cholesterol?
An FSA can cover the necessary cardiac healthcare procedures that can help adults be mindful of their risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues. However, an FSA can also play a role in covering the cost of qualifying products that can assist in lowering harmful cholesterol levels. These FSA-eligible products include:
Smoking Cessation Products: Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol, can harm the lining of blood vessels, and can contribute to atherosclerosis. Both prescription medication and over-the-counter smoking cessation products like nicotine gum, inhalers and patches (which also require a prescription for purchase with an FSA) are FSA eligible and can dramatically help improve cholesterol numbers.
Cholesterol Home Test Kits: These kits are especially helpful for those who are embarking on a diet and exercise plan to lower their cholesterol numbers, and the standard kits contain a lancet for drawing blood and test strips that change color. Some more advanced kits contain electronic meters that are useful for those who wish to check their cholesterol more frequently.
Cholesterol-lowering medications: FSAs can cover the cost of prescription medications to treat medical conditions, and lowering cholesterol levels to prevent future heart problems is certainly an eligible treatment! The most common medications on the market are statins that lower both LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which include medications like Lipitor, Lescol, Livalo, Crestor and more.
Diet and Exercise Aids: Last but not least, individuals with high cholesterol are encouraged to exercise and eat a healthier diet to prevent future cardiovascular issues, but not everyone is ready to get back in the gym after long periods of inactivity. FSAs cover a wide range of pain relief and therapeutic products that can help you stick to your new fitness regimen, including some kinesiology tapes, ankle/knee/elbow/back/hand braces, hot and cold packs, select foot cushioning treatments and much more! For more information about what's eligible, be sure to check our Eligibility List first!