Cholesterol is produced by the liver, the intestines and nearly all tissues in the body. Cholesterol is needed for the production of hormones, vitamin D and the bile necessary to digest the fats in food. Cholesterol also protects cell membranes from changes in temperature. While a certain amount of cholesterol is needed, too much cholesterol is unhealthy. An excessive amount of cholesterol can block blood flow in the arteries. This lack of blood flow can lead to a stroke. While there are no symptoms of high cholesterol, a simple blood test can provide patients with results. Cholesterol levels can be controlled or reduced with an active and healthy lifestyle. In some cases, medication may be necessary to control high levels of cholesterol.
Types of Cholesterol
There are three different types of cholesterol. Different blood tests are performed to individually measure each type of cholesterol.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the "good" cholesterol because elevated HDL levels may reduce the risks for heart disease or stroke. It is believed that HDL returns excess cholesterol to the liver for elimination from the body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) comprises the majority of the body's cholesterol. It is considered to be the "bad" cholesterol because it builds up in the walls of the arteries causing them to narrow, blocking blood flow and leading to heart disease or stroke.
Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) is composed of cholesterol, triglycerides and proteins. VLDL contains the highest amount of triglycerides than any other lipoprotein and is considered to be a "bad" type of cholesterol.
A total cholesterol test measures all types of cholesterol in the blood and the results indicate whether the bad cholesterol levels are too high.
Risks for High Cholesterol
Risks for developing high cholesterol increase with age. People who are at a higher risk for developing high cholesterol include those who:
- Are obese
- Have diabetes
- Eat a poor diet, high in saturated fat
- Have high blood pressure
- Do not exercise regularly
People with a family history of high cholesterol and heart disease have a greater risk for developing high cholesterol.
Complications of High Cholesterol
High cholesterol levels increase the risk of developing heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. High levels of "bad" cholesterol can lead to serious complications, including:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
Initially, high cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, an accumulation of cholesterol and fat deposits on the walls of the arteries. Atherosclerosis can then cause any of the conditions listed above.
Treatment of High Cholesterol
A low-fat diet and losing weight in general may help lower LDL and triglyceride levels. While these lifestyle changes are usually effective in treating high cholesterol, they may not be enough. If lifestyle changes have been made and the total cholesterol levels remain high, the following medication may be suggested:
- Statin medication to reduce LDL cholesterol levels
- Niacin, or nicotinic acid, to raise HDL levels and lower LDL levels
- Fibrates to reduce triglyceride levels
- Bile acid sequestrants to eliminate bile acids
Many medications do have side effects, so it is important to discuss any potential risks with a doctor before taking any medication.