The problem with high cholesterol is that the condition does not cause symptoms in the beginning. You only get to know about it during a routine blood checkup or when you get a heart problem after several years. So, it is necessary to get your cholesterol levels checked every five years. More frequent tests may be needed for people who have been diagnosed with high blood cholesterol or those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
High cholesterol does not cause immediate problems. The excess cholesterol gets deposited as fatty deposits (plaques) in the walls of your blood vessels. This dangerous condition is called atherosclerosis. If cholesterol levels are not controlled, the fatty deposits eventually grow and obstruct the blood flow. This can result in conditions, such as
- Angina. If atherosclerosis affects the coronary arteries (the blood vessels supplying oxygen and nutrients to the heart), you may suffer from angina. This is characterized by chest pain and breathlessness upon exertion. Angina results when there is a narrowing of any of the coronary arteries. The narrowed artery will not be able to meet the increased blood flow requirement of the heart in situations, such as increased physical activity.
- Heart attack. If any of the coronary arteries get blocked, it can result in a heart attack. It generally occurs when a plaque breaks and blocks an already narrowed coronary artery. Diabetes along with high cholesterol increases the risk of heart attack.
- Stroke. It usually occurs when the plaques rupture and block blood flow to the brain.
- Hypertension. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension).
What are the risk factors for high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is often referred to as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is the bad cholesterol because it is the one that forms the fatty plaques, whereas HDL is the good cholesterol because it carries excess cholesterol to the liver for elimination from the body or reutilization. Doctors are often concerned about the high levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol in your blood.
Factors that put you at risk of high cholesterol (particularly bad cholesterol)
- Unhealthy diet. A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats is a sure way to increase your blood cholesterol to unhealthy levels. Saturated fats and trans fats can be found in cookies, crackers and microwave popcorn. Regular consumption of red meat and full-fat dairy products can also increase your cholesterol levels. A diet high in sugar and low in fiber also causes your cholesterol levels to go up.
- Obesity. Being overweight, especially obese (body mass index or BMI over 30 kg/m2), increases your risk of developing high cholesterol levels.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Lack of physical activity may result in an unhealthy increase in cholesterol levels.
- Smoking. The nicotine in tobacco damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more susceptible to developing plaques. It also affects your HDL levels.
- Age. As you age, your body’s ability to maintain the balance between HDL and LDL decreases. The body will not be able to remove LDL efficiently.
- Diabetes. Diabetes may cause a decline in HDL and an increase in LDL cholesterol levels.
- Family history. If someone in your family has a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), you are also more likely to inherit it. FH is characterized by high levels of LDL cholesterol.
How can you improve your cholesterol levels?
Maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol requires conscious efforts to include a few lifestyle modifications. These include
- Reducing your intake of saturated fats and avoiding all trans fats
- Including fibrous foods in your daily diet
- Exercising for at least 30 minutes for at least five days a week
- Quitting tobacco products
- Limiting alcohol consumption