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High Cholesterol

Definition and Facts about High Cholesterol

  • Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance that the body needs to function normally. Cholesterol is used as a building block for many structures as well as other chemicals and hormones that are essential for the body’s activities.
  • The body does not need that much cholesterol, and excess amounts can be deposited along the lining of artery walls, decreasing the amount of blood flow to different parts of the body.
  • High cholesterol is one of the risk factors that can lead to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), including heart attack, TIA, stroke and peripheral artery disease.
  • Examples of foods high in cholesterol include:
    • Egg yolks
    • Shellfish like shrimp
    • Processed meats like bacon
    • Baked goods such as pies and cakes made with animal fats like lard and butter

What Is High Cholesterol?

The body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat. It takes only a small amount of cholesterol in the blood to meet these needs. If a person has too much cholesterol in the bloodstream, the excess may be deposited along the walls of arteries, including the coronary arteries of the heart, the carotid arteries to the brain, and the arteries that supply blood to the legs and the intestines.

Cholesterol deposits are a component of the plaques that cause narrowing and blockage of the arteries, producing signs and symptoms originating from the particular part of the body that has decreased blood supply.

Who Has High Cholesterol?

  • Throughout the world, blood cholesterol levels vary widely. Generally, people who live in countries where blood cholesterol levels are lower, such as Japan, have lower rates of heart disease. Countries with very high cholesterol levels, such as Finland, also have very high rates of coronary heart disease. However, some populations with similar total cholesterol levels have very different heart disease rates, suggesting that other factors also influence risk for coronary heart disease.
  • 71 million American adults (33.5%) have LDL, or "bad" cholesterol
  • People of all ages and backgrounds can have high cholesterol.

What Causes High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol levels are due to a variety of factors including heredity, diet, and lifestyle. Less commonly, underlying illnesses affecting the liver, thyroid, or kidney may affect blood cholesterol levels.

  • Heredity: Genes may influence how the body metabolizes LDL (bad) cholesterol. Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited form of high cholesterol that may lead to early heart disease.
  • Weight: Excess weight may modestly increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. Losing weight may lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
  • Physical activity/exercise: Regular physical activity may lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Age and sex: Before menopause, women usually have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. As women and men age, their blood cholesterol levels rise until about 60 to 65 years of age. After about age 50 years, women often have higher total cholesterol levels than men of the same age.
  • Alcohol use: Moderate (1-2 drinks daily) alcohol intake increases HDL (good) cholesterol but does not lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Doctors don't know for certain whether alcohol also reduces the risk of heart disease. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, lead to high blood pressure, and raise triglyceride levels. Because of the risks, alcoholic beverages should not be used as a way to prevent heart disease.
  • Mental stress: Several studies have shown that stress raises blood cholesterol levels over the long term. One way that stress may do this is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating fatty foods. The saturated fat and cholesterol in these foods contribute to higher levels of blood cholesterol.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/16/2016

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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about High Cholesterol:

High Cholesterol - Symptoms

What were the symptoms of your high cholesterol?

High Cholesterol - Effective Treatments

What treatment has been effective for your high cholesterol?

How Often Should I Have My Cholesterol Checked?

High Cholesterol Symptoms in Children

The American Heart Association recommends that blood cholesterol levels should be checked every 5 years after the age of 20. If cholesterol levels are high (usually over 200 mg dL), people are often started on medicine and lifestyle changes like diet and exercise to reduce the cholesterol. Then person's cholesterol levels usually are checked about every three months to see if the elevated levels of cholesterol have lowered. Once cholesterol levels are normal or below, they are often rechecked at least once per year by many health-care professionals.


Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

High HDL Cholesterol (Hyperalphalipoproteinemia) »

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is positively associated with a decreased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

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