What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all your body cells. Some cholesterol is needed by your body to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help in digestion of food. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. Cholesterol is also found in foods of animal origin, such as cheese, egg yolks and meat.
In your blood, if you have too much cholesterol, it can combine with other blood substances to form a plaque. The plaque sticks to your arteries walls. This buildup of plaque is known as atherosclerosis. This can lead to coronary artery disease, where your coronary arteries narrow down or even become blocked.
What are HDL, LDL and VLDL?
HDL, LDL and VLDL are lipoproteins. They are a combination of fats (lipids) and proteins. Lipids must be attached to proteins in order to be able to circulate in the blood. Different types of lipoproteins serve different purposes:
- HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein. It is called “good” cholesterol sometimes because it carries cholesterol to your liver from other body parts. Your liver then removes cholesterol from your body.
- LDL stands for low density lipoprotein. It is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because high LDL levels lead to plaque buildup in your arteries.
- VLDL stands for Very Low Density Lipoprotein. Some people also call VLDL a “bad” cholesterol because it also helps build up plaque in your arteries. But VLDL and LDL are different; VLDL primarily transports triglycerides and LDL primarily transports cholesterol.
What causes high cholesterol?
The most common cause is an unhealthy lifestyle of high cholesterol. This may include
- Bad eating habits, like eating a lot of bad fats. One type, saturated fat, is found in some baked goods, chocolate, dairy products, fried and processed foods, and meats. Another type, trans fats, are found in some fried and processed foods. Eating these fats can increase your (bad) LDL cholesterol.
- Lack of physical activity, with a little exercise and lot of sitting. This lowers your (good) HDL cholesterol.
- Smoking, which lowers HDL cholesterol, especially in women. It also increases your LDL cholesterol.
High cholesterol can also be caused to people because of genetics. For example, an inherited form of hypercholesterolemia is familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). High cholesterol can also be caused due to other medical conditions and certain medications.
What can increase my risk for high cholesterol?
There are a number of factors that can increase your risk for high cholesterol:
- Age. Your cholesterol level tends to increase with age. Although it is less common, young people, including children and adolescents, can also have high cholesterol.
- Heredity. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
- Weight. Being overweight or obese increases your cholesterol levels.
- Race. Certain breeds may be at increased risk for high cholesterol. For example, African Americans generally have higher HDL and LDL cholesterol levels than whites.
What health problems can high cholesterol cause?
If you have large deposits of plaque in your arteries, an area of plaque may rupture (rupture). On the surface of the plaque, this can cause a blood clot formation . If the clot becomes large enough, it can block most or all of the blood flow in a coronary artery.
If the flow of blood rich in oxygen to your heart muscle is blocked or reduced, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.
Dental plaque can also build up in other arteries in your body, including arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your brain and limbs. This can lead to problems such as carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and stroke.
How is high cholesterol diagnosed?
Usually, there are no signs or symptoms that you have high level of cholesterol. To measure your cholesterol level, there is a blood test. When and how often you should take this test depends on your age, family history, and risk factors. The general recommendations are:
For people 19 years of age or younger:
- The first test must take place between 9 and 11 years old
- Children should retest every 5 years
- Some children may have this test from the age of 2 if they have a family history of high cholesterol, heart attack or stroke.
For people aged 20 or over:
- Young adults should take the test every 5 years
- Men 45 to 65 and women 55 to 65 should have them every 1 to 2 years
How can I lower my cholesterol?
Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can lower your cholesterol levels. They include a heart-healthy diet, weight management, and regular physical activity.
If lifestyle changes alone don’t lower your cholesterol levels enough, you may also need to take medication. There are several types of drugs available used for lowering cholesterol, including statins. If you are taking medication to lower your cholesterol, you must continue to make lifestyle changes.