Cholesterol is a waxy substance that's found in the fats (lipids) in your blood. While your body needs cholesterol to continue building healthy cells, having high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
When you have high cholesterol, you may develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Your heart may not get as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs, which increases the risk of a heart attack. Decreased blood flow to your brain can cause a stroke.
High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia) can be inherited, but it's often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, and thus preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and sometimes medication can go a long way toward reducing high cholesterol.
High cholesterol has no symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect high cholesterol.
When to see a doctor
Cholesterol is carried through your blood, attached to proteins. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. You may have heard of different types of cholesterol, based on what type of cholesterol the lipoprotein carries. They are:
Factors within your control — such as inactivity, obesity and an unhealthy diet — contribute to high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol. Factors beyond your control may play a role, too. For example, your genetic makeup may keep cells from removing LDL cholesterol from your blood efficiently or cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol.
You're more likely to have high cholesterol that can lead to heart disease if you have any of these risk factors:
High cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, a dangerous accumulation of cholesterol and other deposits on the walls of your arteries. These deposits (plaques) can reduce blood flow through your arteries, which can cause complications, such as:
Development of atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a process in which blood, fats such as cholesterol, and other substances build up on your artery walls. Eventually, deposits called plaques may form. The deposits may narrow &...
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you may have high cholesterol, or are worried about having high cholesterol because of a strong family history, make an appointment with your family doctor to have your cholesterol level checked.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For high cholesterol, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
A blood test to check cholesterol levels — called a lipid panel or lipid profile — typically reports:
For the most accurate measurements, don't eat or drink anything (other than water) for nine to 12 hours before the blood sample is taken.
Interpreting the numbers
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that a triglyceride level of 100 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L) or lower is considered "optimal." The AHA says this optimal level would improve your heart health. However, the AHA doesn't recommend drug treatment to reach this level. Instead, for those trying to lower their triglycerides to this level, lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss and physical activity are encouraged. That's because triglycerides usually respond well to dietary and lifestyle changes.
*Canadian and European guidelines differ slightly from U.S. guidelines. These conversions are based on U.S. guidelines.
LDL targets differ
Most people should aim for an LDL level below 130 mg/dL (3.4 mmol/L). If you have other risk factors for heart disease, your target LDL may be below 100 mg/dL (2.6 mmol/L). If you're at very high risk of heart disease, you may need to aim for an LDL level below 70 mg/dL (1.8 mmol/L). In general, the lower your LDL cholesterol level is, the better.
You're considered to be at a high risk of heart disease if you:
In addition, two or more of the following risk factors might also place you in the high-risk group:
Children and cholesterol testing
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends testing if the child's family history for high cholesterol is unknown, but the child has risk factors for high cholesterol, such as obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes.
Treatments and drugs
Lifestyle changes such as exercising and eating a healthy diet are the first line of defense against high cholesterol. But, if you've made these important lifestyle changes and your total cholesterol — and particularly your LDL cholesterol — remains high, your doctor may recommend medication.
The specific choice of medication or combination of medications depends on various factors, including your individual risk factors, your age, your current health and possible side effects. Common choices include:
Medications for high triglycerides
Children and cholesterol treatment
Lifestyle and home remedies
Lifestyle changes are essential to improve your cholesterol level. To bring your numbers down, lose excess weight, eat healthy foods and increase your physical activity. If you smoke, quit.
Lose extra pounds
Eat heart-healthy foods
Few natural products have been proven to reduce cholesterol, but some might be helpful. With your doctor's OK, consider these cholesterol-lowering supplements and products:
You may have also heard of another supplement to reduce cholesterol, red yeast. Some brands of red yeast contain lovastatin, the active ingredient in the drug Mevacor. This can be unsafe, since there's no way to determine the quantity or quality of the lovastatin in the supplement.
If you choose to take cholesterol-lowering supplements, remember the importance of a healthy lifestyle. If your doctor prescribes medication to reduce your cholesterol, take it as directed. Make sure your doctor knows which supplements you're taking as well.
The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can help prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. To help prevent high cholesterol, you can:
Last Updated: 2013-02-12
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