High Cholesterol

What is high cholesterol?

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High cholesterol is a common experience in the United States. Cholesterol is a lipid – a fat-like, waxy substance – found in all body cells. The lipid is important for cellular health, as well as vitamin D formation and certain hormones. While low levels of cholesterol are important to sustain life, high levels can become dangerous.

Blood can sometimes contain too much of a specific type of cholesterol. This cholesterol can combine with other parts of the blood to form plaque, which sticks to arterial walls. This, in turn, can cause artery blockages. When this happens, it can lead to many serious health problems. This can include heart attack or stroke, but also slower-moving and chronic cardiovascular ailments.

According to the CDC, more than one-third of all American adults have high cholesterol. But while this is a common experience, it is something most people should work to avoid. Working with a cardiologist or primary physician can help lower cholesterol to normal levels. This can help you avoid major health complications.

What causes high cholesterol?

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In most cases, high cholesterol is caused by certain lifestyle factors. Diet is the largest contributor. Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats can contribute to cholesterol build-up in the blood. Dairy products, baked goods, deep-fried foods, and some meats are the primary culprits.

However, a lack of physical activity can also contribute to high cholesterol. Little exercise lowers “good” cholesterol. Smoking similarly lowers this “good” cholesterol, especially in women, and it can raise “bad cholesterol.

Genetics can also play a role in whether a person develops high cholesterol. Some health conditions, like hypothyroidism and diabetes, can increase your risk of high cholesterol. Being overweight or having a history of obesity will also increase this risk. Finally, a person’s likelihood of having high cholesterol increases as they age. While children and teenagers can still experience high levels of bad cholesterol, it is most often found in adults. This is likely a result of compounding lifestyle factors and general declines in health.

Are there any symptoms of high cholesterol?

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There are no high cholesterol symptoms. Blood tests are the only means of detecting elevated blood cholesterol levels. But, since there are no symptoms, knowing when to get checked can be difficult.

Americans over 20 years old should get their cholesterol levels checked at least once every four to six years, according to the American Heart Association. Those with additional health ailments, including diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, are encouraged to get tested more frequently.

Are there different types of high cholesterol?

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There are several types of cholesterol and lipids that occur in the body. Only one type of cholesterol will signify a high cholesterol reading. We’ll unpack the different types of cholesterol below.

  • LDL Cholesterol – Also known as “bad cholesterol,” this is the type to watch out for. Low-density lipoprotein carries the substance into the arteries, which can cause plaque buildup. This, in turn, narrows the arteries, limits blood flow, and can increase a person’s risk of developing blood clots. This is type of cholesterol your doctor will look for when evaluating your bloodwork.
  • HDL Cholesterol – Known colloquially as “good cholesterol,” this lipid helps return “bad” cholesterol to the liver to be removed from the body. In the simplest terms, HDL cholesterol helps rid your body of LDL cholesterol.
  • Triglycerides – While a different type of lipid, triglycerides are important for overall blood health. This lipid provides energy, which is stored in fat cells. If a person eats more calories than their body can use, triglyceride levels may rise. This increases the risk for certain health problems.

A healthy balance of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides is important for overall heart health. However, regular blood screenings are important to understand potentially elevated risk.

How is high cholesterol diagnosed?

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High cholesterol is only diagnosable with a blood test. At your routine physical exam, or at a cardiologist appointment, your doctor will use a lipid panel to measure your overall cholesterol levels. If your total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol are too high, the doctor will diagnose you with high cholesterol.

Each type of cholesterol should fit within a certain range to be considered healthy. LDL cholesterol, or bad cholesterol, must be less than 100 to be considered “good.” Those with coronary artery disease will need an LDL cholesterol reading of less than 70 mg/dL to be considered healthy. A moderately elevated cholesterol range is typically between 130 mg/dL and 159 mg/dL, and high cholesterol is 160 mg/dL or higher. A reading of 190 mg/dL is considered to be dangerously high.

In general, the total cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dL total, but this will depend on your ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol levels.

What high cholesterol treatments are available?

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If you have high cholesterol, your primary physician or cardiologist will likely recommend a lifestyle change as a first treatment. Changes in diet, exercise, and other habits can significantly improve cholesterol readings. Limiting foods that are high in cholesterol and fats, choosing lean protein sources, and eating high-fiber foods are all part of the high cholesterol diet.

However, when diet and lifestyle don’t work, a doctor may prescribe medications to lower LDL cholesterol. Statins are the most commonly prescribed medication for this condition. The drug blocks the liver from producing more cholesterol.

What are common high cholesterol complications?

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High cholesterol can be extremely dangerous for some people. When left untreated, plaque can build up in the arteries. Over time, this will narrow the blood vessels. This condition is called atherosclerosis, and it is very dangerous.

Narrowed blood vessels can cause or contribute to a variety of life-threatening complications. This can include any of the following:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Angina (chest pain)
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Peripheral vascular disease

Those with high cholesterol are twice as likely to develop heart disease. Additionally, high cholesterol can increase a person’s risk for developing gallstones. These conditions develop over time, so it is important to receive regular blood tests to understand your risk. If you have high cholesterol, consider working with a cardiologist to reduce your LDL cholesterol levels.

How to prevent high cholesterol?

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While genetic risks for high cholesterol cannot be controlled, some lifestyle factors can be managed. If you have had high cholesterol in the past, or if you want to prevent a high cholesterol reading in the future, there are several strategies to try.

  • Avoid nicotine and tobacco products
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Eat a healthy diet low in animal fats and high in fiber
  • Exercise regularly

Importantly, you’ll want to follow your doctor’s recommendations when it comes to routine cholesterol screenings. High cholesterol is only treatable if it’s caught. And, the earlier you receive a high cholesterol diagnosis, the better your outlook will be.

When cholesterol is left untreated, it can cause a variety of serious health complications. But treatment is often very effective. Managing cholesterol will require lifestyle changes, but this will gradually improve your outlook after a high cholesterol diagnosis.