Having high cholesterol levels often does not cause any symptoms. Undergoing a blood screening test is the only way to check for the condition. This test measures total cholesterol and triglycerides.
Cholesterol is an essential substance for the body. However, at high levels, it can be a risk factor for heart attack and other heart-related conditions.
Undergoing routine blood tests can help a person determine if their cholesterol levels are within a healthy range. To lower high cholesterol levels, a doctor may suggest making lifestyle changes or taking medications.
Keep reading to learn about the diagnosis, causes, and prevention of high cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels do not usually cause any symptoms — unless the levels are extremely high, in which case a person may see fatty bumps in their skin or grayish-white circles in their eyes.
These symptoms mostly occur in people with a family history of high cholesterol, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
A lipid panel is a blood test that shows whether or not a person has high cholesterol levels. A doctor will administer this test.
The recommended schedules for this test are as follows:
- Adults aged 20–65 years should get a test every 5 years.
- Females aged 55–65 years should get a test every 1–2 years.
- Males aged 45–65 years should also get a test every 1–2 years.
- People with heart disease or a family history of high cholesterol should get a test more frequently. Their first test may be at age 2 years.
- Children aged 9–11 years should undergo screening and get a test every 5 years.
- People aged 65 years and over should get a test every year.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the liver produces. Lipoproteins carry cholesterol through the body. The body uses cholesterol for various functions, including food digestion, hormone production, and vitamin D generation.
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol.
If cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. This occurs when plaques form on artery walls, and it may narrow them and cause blood flow to become restricted.
Although cholesterol is essential for good health, high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Having certain unhealthy habits is the most common cause of high cholesterol levels. These habits include smoking, getting little exercise, and consuming an unhealthy diet.
Some other factors that may contribute to high cholesterol levels include:
- genes inherited from a parent
- some medical conditions, such as chronic kidney disease and diabetes
- certain medications, such as steroids that treat inflammatory conditions
Doctors use a blood test called a lipoprotein panel, or lipid profile, to check cholesterol levels.
The test measures the following levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- LDL cholesterol: This is known as bad cholesterol because it builds up in the arteries and can lead to heart attack or stroke. Lipoproteins are molecules that carry cholesterol through the blood.
- HDL cholesterol: This is called good cholesterol because it moves LDL cholesterol out of the arteries to the liver.
- Triglycerides: These are the most common fats in the body. If high levels are combined with either high LDL levels or low HDL levels, a person may be at increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Before making treatment recommendations, a doctor will consider an individual’s risk factors for several conditions, along with their cholesterol readings.
Several factors may increase the risk of having high cholesterol levels, according to the CDC.
The sections below will look at these factors in more detail.
Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic condition that a person can inherit from mutated genes. They can get the gene from either or both of their parents. The condition can result in high cholesterol levels.
There may also be other conditions that could have an impact on cholesterol levels, such as if a family member had a heart attack early in their life.
Age and sex
In general, as a person gets older, their risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels increases.
However, females usually have lower LDL levels than males until they reach menopause, while males of any age generally have lower HDL levels than females.
In addition to FH, some other health conditions can increase the risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels. These include obesity and diabetes.
Obesity is linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, lower levels of HDL cholesterol, and higher levels of triglycerides.
Diabetes increases LDL levels and decreases HDL levels.
The following habits may increase the risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels:
- Smoking: This can harm the blood vessels.
- Lack of exercise: Without sufficient exercise, a person may develop overweight, which can raise cholesterol levels.
- Unhealthy diet: This may contribute to high cholesterol levels.
Making certain lifestyle changes can usually help a person lower their LDL cholesterol levels or maintain healthy cholesterol levels. However, a doctor may also prescribe medications to help control the condition.
The following sections will look at these options in more detail.
Making the following lifestyle changes may help prevent high LDL cholesterol levels:
- Eat a healthy diet: This type of diet includes foods that contain unsaturated fats. By adopting a healthy diet, a person can reduce their intake of trans and saturated fats, note the American Heart Association (AHA).
- Quit smoking: Quitting smoking can decrease bad cholesterol levels and increase good cholesterol levels, according to the AHA.
- Exercise regularly: The AHA suggest getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Limit alcohol intake: Alcohol intake can raise the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol.
- Aim for a moderate weight: Most adults should have a body mass index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 24.9, according to the NHLBI.
If a person has received a diagnosis of dangerously high cholesterol levels, a doctor may prescribe medications such as statins. These drugs can reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack by lowering cholesterol.
Some other drugs that a doctor may recommend include:
- drugs to lower blood fats
- PCSK9 inhibitors
- selective cholesterol absorption inhibitors
Even with medication, it is still important to focus on making dietary and lifestyle changes to lower cholesterol levels.
Since high cholesterol levels do not usually cause any symptoms, a person may not be aware that they have the condition until they undergo a blood screening. This test measures total cholesterol and may also include triglycerides.
After receiving a diagnosis of high LDL cholesterol levels, a doctor may recommend making some lifestyle changes. These changes may include eating a nutritious diet, aiming for a moderate weight, and quitting smoking. A doctor may also prescribe medications.