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What is High Cholesterol?

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By itself, cholesterol is not a bad thing. A waxy substance, cholesterol is present in all cells. It helps your body digest foods, create hormones, and manufacture vitamin D. Lipoproteins (high density lipoprotein or HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL) are the mechanisms responsible for delivering and distributing cholesterol to the body.

Unfortunately, while the right amount of cholesterol is a good thing, too much cholesterol may result in damage and blockage to the arteries, which in turn may increase your risk of heart disease. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the basic fact about high cholesterol.

What is LDL and HDL cholesterol?
LDL or low density lipoprotein is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This type of cholesterol is called bad because it may lead to an excessive amount of cholesterol in the heart arteries. Too much cholesterol in the heart arteries may cause them to become blocked, increasing your risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, or other cardiac events.

On the other hand, HDL or high density lipoprotein is often referred to as “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the housekeeper when it comes to cholesterol. It picks up excess cholesterol throughout the body and delivers it to the liver where it’s removed.

My doctor says I have hyperlipidemia. What does that mean?
Hyperlipidemia is another name for high cholesterol. Sometimes, high cholesterol is also referred to as hypercholesterolemia.

Why is high cholesterol bad?
Have you ever had to deal with a clogged sink? If so, then you know how the clog, or blockage, prevents the water from flowing normally. High cholesterol functions much the same way. It clogs the heart arteries, decreasing blood flow, making it more difficult for the heart to do its job and deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. As a result, high cholesterol may increase your risk of stroke or heart attack.

What are high cholesterol symptoms?
It’s not uncommon for people with high cholesterol to have no symptoms. Frequently, the first time that they know their cholesterol is high is after they have a blood test which reveals the condition.

What are some of the complications of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol may lead to atherosclerosis, chest pain, angina, heart attack, and stroke.

How high is too high?
Generally, your doctor will look at total cholesterol levels, HDL levels, and LDL levels. Your doctor may also examine the level of triglycerides.

If you have multiple risk factors for high cholesterol, such as prior history, age, post-menopausal, or family history of heart disease, your physician may recommend a different target level based on your individual history.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are general guidelines for cholesterol levels. It should be noted that these numbers are guidelines only.

Total Cholesterol Level Total Cholesterol Category
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable
200–239 mg/dL Borderline high
240 mg/dL and higher High

LDL Cholesterol Level LDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 100 mg/dL Optimal
100–129 mg/dL Near optimal/above optimal
130–159 mg/dL Borderline high
160–189 mg/dL High
190 mg/dL and higher Very high

HDL Cholesterol Level HDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 40 mg/dL A major risk factor for heart disease
40–59 mg/dL The higher, the better
60 mg/dL and higher Considered protective against heart disease

How is high cholesterol treated?
High cholesterol may be treated by various medications such as statins to lower cholesterol levels, bile-acid-binding resins to help our liver use and dispose of the extra amounts of blood cholesterol, cholesterol absorption inhibitors to prevent absorption of cholesterol in the small intestines, and a combination of cholesterol absorption inhibitors and statins. Cholesterol levels may also be improved by lifestyle changes such as those described in the paragraph below.

Can high cholesterol be prevented?
Yes! Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes that you can take to help prevent or lower high cholesterol. These lifestyle changes include:

*Regular exercise – exercise raises levels of good cholesterol and lowers levels of bad cholesterol; 30 – 60 minutes a day is ideal

*Healthy diet – avoid foods high in cholesterol such as red meat, dairy products, saturated and trans fats, and limit dietary cholesterol while adding fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and omega 3 fatty acids

*Lose weight - recommended if you have a BMI of 30 or more

*Quit smoking

In addition, if you have a history of high blood pressure or diabetes, it’s important to control these conditions as they contribute to high cholesterol.


What is Cholesterol? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 01 Jul 2011. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc

High Cholesterol. 01Jun 2011. The Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-cholesterol/DS00178

Reviewed November 7, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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