Reducing cholesterol levels does not require a mammoth effort but few bother to get tested and consequently circulatory problems, including heart disease and stroke, remain high.

In 2000 these diseases accounted for up to 46 per cent of deaths yet just 17 per cent of those surveyed in 2003 had had their blood cholesterol levels checked in the previous three years, according to Health Promotion Department figures.

High blood cholesterol is one of the risk factors of coronary heart disease because it sticks to the artery walls, producing fatty plaque and narrowing the arteries.

Pia Salo, cardio-respiratory specialist and senior medical adviser of the international Raisio Group plc, said Finland had similar problems in the 1970s but efforts to raise awareness of lifestyle changes and cholesterol led to a reduction of 80 per cent of cardiovascular diseases over 20 years.

Dr Salo, who was in Malta to speak to cardiologists and healthcare professionals on the role of plant stanols in lowering cholesterol, told The Times that adults should know what their levels are as early as 30 years old or earlier if the condition runs in the family.

She also addressed a conference titled A New Front For Fighting Heart Disease, which was held last week at the Meridien, St Julians. Her visit was organised by Alf. Mizzi & Sons (Marketing) Group, importers of Benecol products, who together with St James Hospital has embarked on a Healthy Heart Campaign.

Benecol, which comes in the form of a yoghurt drink, low fat spread and pasta, is produced by Raisio Group and contains the ingredient called plant stanol ester, derived from soy or tall oil sterols.

"Scientific evidence has shown that plant stanols work very quickly to reduce cholesterol levels," she said. Research had shown that consuming two grams a day of plant stanols was enough to reduce the LDL, or bad, cholesterol levels by 10 to 15 per cent.

"Nowadays, we have the best bio-available solution for people and plant stanol ester can be incorporated in almost any foods, which makes it easier to consume. For example in the UK, it's available in orange juice," she said.

Dr Salo insisted that the first step in reducing cholesterol was making lifestyle changes, from losing weight to eating healthier foods. However, if that did not work then plant stanols could give a helping hand, with pharmaceuticals being a last resort.

"We have the tools to combat it," she said.

Dr Salo, who is a paediatrician, is part of a project that has been following 4,000 children in Finland who, for the past 15 years, have been on a healthy eating plan since they were six months old.

At school these children eat like the rest of their friends, but at home they are offered healthy choices, and the results so far show that those taking part in the trials had lower cholesterol levels and their blood vessel function was better.

Meanwhile, those who wish to do something about their condition can benefit from specialised medical tests that have been reduced in price as part of the Healthy Heart Campaign, which will run until December 31.

For Lm39, the public is being offered the choice between a heart scan, normally worth Lm80, and the St James-Benecol Healthy Heart Test, normally costing Lm95, which includes specific blood tests, a medical check-up, resting ECG, lung function test and a chest X-Ray.

To benefit from these special rates you have to collect any three Benecol cardboard sleeves or boxes and send them to P. O. Box 11, GPO 01, Marsa along with your name, postal address and telephone number. A voucher, redeemable at St James Hospital in Zabbar or Sliema, will be sent back.

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